Rugby Union: England find the skill and the will

Mark Evans, the Saracens director of coaching, reflects on a month of improvement
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The Independent Online
At the end of a frighteningly intense month of international rugby, England can look back on their efforts with a reasonable amount of satisfaction. In the first game against Australia it looked as if the whole team was playing off-the-cuff with no discernible gameplan whatsoever. Less than a month later the side looked decisive and clear-headed in almost every aspect of play. The improvement was not a steady one - there was an alarming dip in the second half against South Africa - but overall the coaching and management team can point to several areas of rapid development.

Certain individuals came up trumps - notably Garath Archer, Kyran Bracken, Will Greenwood, and Austin Healey. It should be remembered that when Alex King and Jerry Guscott are fit the possible permutations in the backline become very interesting indeed.

Don't be surprised to see Mike Catt returning at full-back where Matt Perry, for all his promise, still doesn't look the finished article. Tim Rodber will return from injury and Tony Diprose will bounce back to create even more selection headaches in the back row where Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill are firmly ensconced. I have to admit I'm not a fully paid-up member of the Neil Back Appreciation Society (President: Stuart Barnes). Too many of his tackles are "passive" for my liking, and he still gets turned over in contact too often. Nevertheless, England really are spoilt for choice in this area.

Collectively the scrummage tightened up immeasurably over the month. Darren Garforth has taken his opportunity well, and although he will never make a World XV, his solidity has allowed the rest of the team to play. Jason Leonard looked far more comfortable in his natural position of loosehead, so that while against Australia the backrow could not get into the game offensively because they were constantly going backwards, by the time of the second Test versus New Zealand the middle five had any number of options because they were working from a secure base.

In attack, the realignment of Paul Grayson, the injury to Catt, and the improved levels of ball retention meant that continuity is now beginning to be merged with more of a cutting edge.

Defensively, the team were outstanding - with the exception of Grayson in the final Test, who spoilt a high-class performance with two glaring errors. Much of the good work initiated by Mike Slemen and built upon by the Lions in the summer has been refined by Phil Larder so that, in football terms, the side looks "tight at the back".

One area where we need to develop our game still further is in the tackle zone; the speed and accuracy with which the support players "clear out" defenders is not always direct or decisive enough. The delivery of the ball by the tackled player lacks consistency and we are still not sure how many players we need to commit to the breakdown. However, in most other areas we lose little in comparison tactically or technically now that the players have become more comfortable with the ball in hand.

We must continue to try to play the style of game we saw against New Zealand, always pick a Test-standard place kicker somewhere in the team (which precludes the use of Catt in such a role), and stop labouring under the misapprehension that somehow these other guys are superhuman. Standards in English rugby are rising in only the second year of professionalism - partly because of the levelling up of teams in the Premiership and the influence of overseas coaches and players. The main threats to continued improvement are now overplaying and exhaustion, rather than rickety competitive structures and nasty old Johnny Foreigner.