The subdued, anticlimactic feeling that descended on the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium at the final whistle on Saturday was as conspicuous as the groans which greeted Owen Farrell’s skewed drop-goal attempt. At the end of a pulsating, if rather ugly Test match, neither side were at all content with a 14-14 draw. The hosts had squandered numerous chances to kill England off – both from the kicking tee and through elementary handling errors – and were evidently irritated with an inability to secure a whitewash. Equally, the tourists annoyingly ended an arduous month with a nil beside their name when perhaps their
perseverance merited more.
However, in a roundabout way, the atmosphere was encouraging for the short-term future of Stuart Lancaster’s charges. It meant that their ambition to return to home shores with a Springbok scalp was very real. Moreover, unlike the Ireland side that had utterly capitulated to a record defeat in Hamilton just hours earlier, it indicated that England possessed sufficient inner steel to match a southern hemisphere superpower for the third consecutive week.
A sense of insatiability is so central to rugby’s best. There is no better way of proving that than looking at the world champions. After scraping to a 22-19 over Declan Kidney’s men in Christchurch, New Zealand had the series sewn up. Even so, a habit of winning has given way to a culture of perfectionism. Kiwi press compelled better, yearned for a backlash. Inevitably, even after Steve Hansen’s selection gave his side a vulnerable sheen, that is exactly what they got, as a 60-0 victory sent shockwaves around the globe.
While Lancaster has emerged with credit from his first eight internationals, all things considered, the autumnal horizon holds no respite. In fact, the four QBE Internationals at Twickenham later this year – against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in that order – are hugely important. It is crucial that excuses about ‘transitional periods’ or ‘a developing team’ are totally allayed. Results must take precedence.
Pragmatic and unflappable, Lancaster is also an admirably fast learner. No doubt he will have already come to his own, accurate conclusions about what has gone on in South Africa. Even so, here are a few essentials to take forward.
Chris Robshaw is good enough at openside
Prior to the tour, the absence of a specialist seven was a cause of uproar. In rampaging form for Toulon, Steffon Armitage was overlooked. With Andy Saull injured, a smattering of natural blindsides and number eights convened. Carl Fearns made the trip for some experience with the Midweek Warriors. Who was going to be the ‘fetcher?’ Was Lancaster protecting his skipper’s spot? Surely the Harlequins talisman would be found as the pace intensified against the Springboks?
Well, after giving an indication of his credentials with an incredible showing in the Aviva Premiership final, Robshaw confounded critics at Durban. With 21 tackles and 31 ruck-clears in the series opener, the extent of his amazing engine was revealed. Four turnovers went beyond the call of duty. Though he was hampered by a cracked thumb and consequently much less effective in Johhanesburg, there should be no more question marks. In the latest Sunday Times, Stuart Barnes called for his inclusion on the Lions openside next summer. Bold, but good enough for me. Now to balance the back row with two of Tom Johnson, Tom Wood, Tom Croft, James Haskell, Ben Morgan and Thomas Waldrom around him.
Harness Manu Tuilagi’s talents
By the mixed reaction of the Sunday Papers – Eddie Butler of The Observer wants him to stay at inside centre and be a distributer, The Sunday Times’ Stephen Jones sees his future on the wing – no one
really knows how best to use the Leicester Tigers cannonball. Whatever happens, he is both the perfect man to blast over the gain-line from first-phase and England’s most destructive defender. Given time, a midfield partnership with Jonathan Joseph will be show-stopping. That much is certain.
No more of Owen Farrell at fly half
The young Saracen has attributes by the bucket-load – few are more committed, none better at place-kicking. On temperament alone, he will eventually find a way into the England side. That cannot be in the number ten shirt, though. Nagging cracks that appeared subtly in the Six Nations got wider in the Killik Cup match against the Barbarians just before departure. At Durban, Farrell’s passing faltered in the spotlight and when Flood went early on Saturday, there wasn’t much hope of England putting together anything in wider channels. The default action was an aimless punt, which was hardly inspiring.
Taking Flood out of the equation, the best footballer and communicator in the 42-man squad is Alex Goode. Unfortunately, England did not touch the ball when he moved up to stand-off during Farrell’s blood-bin. Perhaps an idea for Fiji if 50-cap Flood isn’t fit? I think so.
Step up the physicality
Though this is something of a vague statement, the damning statistic that England missed 72 tackles over the course of the three matches is far starker. If the mundane interviews were to be believed, the tourists were ready for the Springboks abrasive gameplan. Certainly, flooding runners around the corner off Francois Hougaard was hardly rocket science. Even so, the likes of Geoff Parling and Dylan Hartley floundered enough in defence for such simplicity to be devastating.
Size isn’t the problem. Dan Lydiate and Sam Warburton of Wales aren’t the biggest and their countryman Toby Faletau made over 50 tackles during the World Cup without missing one. Calls for the ‘lumberjack’ technique, especially against the bigger men, are completely justified. The (probable) return of Andy Farrell will help. It has to.
Define Mike Catt’s role
Bluntly, what the former London Irish guru added was not glaringly obvious. Throughout the three Tests, the England’s back-play was fractured at best – Chris Ashton and Ben Foden hunting for scraps rather than handed go-forward ball to feast on. After what was effectively a month-long trial, Catt has not managed to nail down a permanent position. Crucially though, the players respect him hugely. That should count for a great deal. Given time, he will have a massive influence and should be considered a potent weapon in Lancaster’s armoury and, if the head coach wants Catt’s ideas for the autumn, he should be incorporated alongside Farrell senior straightaway and charged with inciting a more adventurous framework. If not, throw him the stewardship of the Saxons for a prolonged period and watch the youngsters express themselves. A review of the coaching team is promised in the next ten days. We wait with baited breath.
Place high stock on domestic form
Goode’s showing on Saturday was a brilliant advert for the Aviva Premiership. Similarly, though many thought Joe Marler too raw for the cauldron of Test rugby, he coped well after a title-winning season. Most encouragingly, Johnson translated excellence for the plucky Exeter Chiefs onto a far more prestigious stage. Though the respective Barbarians sides were distinctly average, George Robson’s midweek boys put together some cohesive, fluent attacks and Tom Youngs will be knocking on the door with a strong September at Welford Road. Even Nick Abendanon and Jonny May, who joined proceedings very late, scored five tries between them and should be considered for their innate ability to beat defenders. Lancaster clearly has a lot of belief in the league system, and rightly so – the pool of talent at his disposal is deep.
Undeniably, England have the right ethos in place – there is faith in youth and an ingrained desire to work for each other. Autumn is the time to arrest the shortcomings and record results in black and white. It is an exciting prospect.