1. It’s a long old season
Nobody will make excuses and the England camp won’t admit it, but it’s been a long, gruelling season for a lot of the guys involved on this tour to New Zealand. On Saturday it showed. The likes of Mike Brown, Joe Launchbury and Billy Vunipola have all seemed a notch below their usually exemplary performance levels this tour. Brown’s ability to always beat the first man seems to have deserted him, Launchbury, hugely uncharacteristically, has been falling off a couple of tackles, and Vunipola has been nowhere near the destructive menace he can be with ball in hand. Of course, they are not the only players to be struggling with fatigue, but at the end of a domestic season that totals nearly 40 games, plus Autumn Internationals and Six Nations, it is little wonder they are looking tired. It is far from the sole reason the series was a whitewash, but it certainly didn’t help.
2. Still the best in the world
New Zealand finally broke free of their shackles in the first half on Saturday and reminded us, after many had been doubting it, that they are still a cut above the rest when it comes to scoring tries. They are so clinical it’s scary; when a chance presents itself, they score it – it’s as simple as that. Sure, they have players of freakish physical attributes like Ma’a Nonu and Julien Savea, but actually it is the execution of the basics that sets them apart – just look at Savea’s pick up off the laces for his second try. This is essentially what makes them the best team in the world, and so difficult to beat. It’s not rocket science – you get more points for a try than a penalty. Put yourselves in the right parts of the pitch with an intelligent kicking game and then execute with precision when a chance comes your way. It’s what the All Blacks do best and everyone else needs to do better.
3. Back to the drawing board?
Absolutely not. There has been a lot of finger-pointing in the aftermath of the final test, but let’s not forget that going into the game, the points difference was only six in New Zealand’s favour. Not many sides can say that after two games on Kiwi soil. On the whole, England have a settled group of players and, in most positions, enough depth to see them through to the World Cup, especially when you consider the injured men to come back. Add in the stardust that Tom Croft, Alex Corbisiero (if scrummaging prowess can be referred to as stardust!) Christian Wade, and, just maybe, Sam Burgess could potentially add, and you’ve got a pretty healthy squad that will certainly be difficult to beat at a World Cup on home soil. There’s no need to panic and press the reset button.
4. Central issue remains
That said, exiting the tour we are no clearer what the best centre partnership is than we were coming into it – not an ideal situation to be in as we head into the World Cup year. Manu Tuilagi is England’s best attacking weapon and should have the 13 shirt nailed down, but the question remains as to who should play inside him. Kyle Eastmond looked good in the first test but well out of his depth in the third, Billy Twelvetrees was well below par in the second test and some higher power in charge of injuries seems determined to stop him lining up with Tuilagi, while a Burrell/Tuilagi combination is probably a touch one-dimensional, especially if Owen Farrell is in the fly-half shirt. England have four excellent rugby players there, and they will likely be the options when the World Cup comes around, but the issue now is finding the best combination. It’s a big one.
5. A learning experience
Coaches always talk about ‘taking positives’ from experiences like this, and Lancaster has been no different after the third test. Make no mistake, a 3-0 series whitewash is not good in anyone’s book, and although nobody expected anything much different heading into the series, admirable efforts in the first and second tests – in particular that first game when they came so close a win with an understrength side – had people hoping that England might snatch a win to leave New Zealand with a 2-1 series loss. It didn’t happen, but Lancaster is right that England will have learnt plenty from the experience.
Their biggest lesson is that you simply must take your chances against the All Blacks when they are presented to you. Too often England were guilty of squandering brilliant attacking positions through inaccurate execution and poor decision making. Whether this necessitates more mental coaching in how to deal with these high-pressure moments, or more focus on doing the basics better (likely both, in all honesty), is for the coaches to decide, but if England can learn one thing from New Zealand in this series it is that if you are clinical when a chance comes along, you will likely win the game.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images