With a home World Cup around the corner, being whitewashed in a test series isn’t the perfect preparation for a youthful England team. But, there are many positives that can be taken forward from the series in New Zealand as Stuart Lancaster’s men look to hit the ground running as they approach the final 12 months before kicking off the Rugby World Cup 2015.
Let’s start with the positives. The first test showed what strength in depth England have. With all the players who played in the Premiership final missing, England played a very much under strength team. Playing against the best team in the world, who were at near full strength, they were expected to be beaten very heavily. Instead, fringe players such as Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond really stepped up, causing the hosts all sorts of problems. With Burns in superb form from the tee, England were only beaten by a 77th minute try. The performances from some of the younger players, including a couple of test debuts, really stoked the fires for the following week where England would be back to full strength. England’s bench for the second test was very strong, containing Hartley, Lawes and Billy Vunipola. All three came on and had an impact as England lost out by a single point.
A second positive from the tour is the level of performance that the players produced, particularly in the first two tests. Chris Robshaw led from the front, managing to nullify the threat of Richie McCaw for almost 160 minutes of rugby. Marland Yarde, despite his poor defensive display in the final test, was England’s biggest threat with ball hand, scoring 2 tries which included running over the top of McCaw to give England a 10-0 lead in the second test. Joe Launchbury was at his imperious best and Geoff Parling made more tackles than any other Englishman in the second test.
However, there are many things that England can learn from a New Zealand team who have now won 17 test matches in a row. The decision to put Manu Tuilagi on the wing and bring Billy Twelvetrees into the centres backfired and could be seen as a factor as to why England failed to level the series. For me though, the biggest reason why New Zealand prevailed was because they were more clinical. England spent a long time, particularly in the second test, camped on the New Zealand try line but still struggling to find a way to score. In the first test, New Zealand only really had one chance to score. Conrad Smith took it and they won the game. In the second test, the All Blacks had a 15 minute spell where they blew England away. They upped their intensity, aggression and pace, playing a brand of rugby that no team could cope with. They scored 2 tries in 7 minutes, which won them the game. England need to show this level of composure in the opposition 22 in order to come anywhere near beating a top southern hemisphere team.
Despite a truly awful display in the first half of the final test, England can come away from this tour with their heads held high. They came within a score of beating New Zealand twice, once with a supposed weakened team. The young players that Lancaster has developed proved why they deserve to be there and it also displays the tremendous strength in depth we have. I don’t think we’ll win the World Cup, but we have some very encouraging signs from Chris Robshaw’s men to suggest that we are very close to getting it right. This, coupled with the England U 20s winning back to back Junior World Championship titles, I believe that we are seeing another golden age for English Rugby.