On Sunday morning, newspapers up and down the country were waxing lyrical with patriotic pride over England’s astonishing 38-21 victory over New Zealand. It still surprises me how, in any sport, a single result can change an entire nations mood on the direction their team is moving in. The days of criticising England and their captain Chris Robshaw for their decision making against both Australia and South Africa seem nothing but a distant memory.
Fast forward a few days and some of the excessive optimism has been tempered with the reality of where the England team actually is at the moment, and their allocation in what will surely be known as the ‘group of death’ in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, alongside fellow rugby heavyweights Australia and Wales. This makes it the perfect time to analyse England’s performance in the Autumn Internationals and stress how important it is that they carry this momentum forward into the Six Nations.
England kicked off the QBE Internationals in rampant form, shaking off the rust as they defeated Fiji 54-12, and built confidence in the ideal manner, as tougher fixtures against the ‘Big Three’ loomed.
Next up for England were disappointing single score losses to both Australia and South Africa. As already mentioned, Robshaw’s decision making was criticised by plenty following the losses, but there was no denying that England were competitive in both games, and single plays were all that prevented England from securing a historic whitewash of the Southern Hemisphere sides this Autumn.
Anything I now say about the New Zealand game will have been said to death by journalists throughout the country, but nevertheless I will add my two cents worth. We witnessed an All Blacks side completely outmuscled by a powerful England pack, whilst the vaunted centre pairing of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were cut down to size by Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi, and even exposed defensively as the English pair ran in three tries between them. Arguably the most pleasing facet of the game however, was England’s mentality, not only to bounce back from two defeats, but to also survive the scare of a New Zealand comeback early in the second half and continue to play at such a high level.
If you had offered England’s supporters two single score losses to Australia and South Africa, and an emphatic victory over the World Champions, whilst fielding a youthful side with three years to develop ahead of the next World Cup, the vast majority would likely have taken it.
England look to be developing good depth at key positions, with multiple players impressing in the second and back rows, and the duel between Ben Youngs and Danny Care for the scrum half position looks to be the best England have had since Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken. The front row also looked formidable once more with the return of Alex Corbisiero, whilst Dan Cole could have quite easily worn the seven jersey, such was his ability at the breakdown throughout the Autumn. This allowed England to operate effectively in the contact area without a typical fetcher at the openside flanker position.
A diamond in the rough has been found in the form of Wasps’ lock Joe Launchbury, who did not miss a step in his first tastes of international rugby, and who will be looking to build on this experience in February, as will the likes of Tom Wood and Corbisiero, both of whom shone on their returns from injury. If Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Croft can all also return to form and fitness in time, then competitiveness for places in the pack may be at its highest for almost 10 years.
There is no doubt that England are capable of carrying this momentum forward and winning the Six Nations, but going out and winning in Cardiff and Dublin is very different from being capable of it. Critical though is the fact that questions over the ability of England’s backline to be clinical are currently hushed, hopefully giving the players the confidence to go out and perform come February.
Only time will tell if they can live up to the expectations foisted upon them during the ecstasy of Saturday’s game, but this could well be the moment we all look back at in three years and say ‘this is where it began…’.
By Alex Shaw
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images