England vs France: Europe’s finest still playing catch-up despite stunning final day of the 2015 Six Nations

England, Wales and Ireland lag behind the New Zealanders by some distance

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The Independent Online

In a quiet corner after a convivial dinner, not long before the start of this year’s Six Nations Championship, a head coach confided: “Whatever happens, you always keep something back with a World Cup coming up.”

And it came across as a rule of thumb for all concerned, meaning that everything we have seen in the past seven weeks, up to and including last night’s title victory for Ireland in frantic fashion and crushing disappointment for England, was not the whole story where the global tournament in six months’ time is concerned.

The head coach’s identity is  unimportant. Ok, he was a New Zealander, which only narrowed it down by half in the Six Nations, and by not much more looking towards the World Cup when seven of the 20 teams will be under the guidance of Kiwis. The current favourites to win it are overwhelmingly New  Zealand’s All Blacks, all the more so because none of Europe’s hopefuls were able to achieve a Grand Slam.

Chinks in the armour were exposed every week in the Six Nations: when Wales lost at home to England, when England lost in Dublin, and Ireland lost in Cardiff. As for Scotland and France and Italy, they are surely too far off consistency to be considered contenders.

But what about our head coach’s view, that there remain sights unseen for every team? England, by dint of their injury count and still comparatively youthful squad, may have most to gain from tinkering with personnel and patterns. Regular picks Alex Corbisiero, Brad Barritt, Joe Launchbury, Tom Croft, Ben Morgan and Manu Tuilagi are at various stages of recovery, even if head coach Stuart Lancaster appears happy with the basic building blocks of a squad pulling in one direction and the captaincy of Chris Robshaw.

According to a coach who has been there, done that – and is about to do so again – England still have plenty to do. Eddie Jones, the former Australia boss beaten so narrowly by Clive Woodward’s England in 2003, and a consultant to South Africa when they won in 2007, is in charge of Japan now, and preparing for a World Cup pool that includes Scotland and South Africa. Just returned to Tokyo from a trip to New Zealand, Jones told The Independent on Sunday: “The English balance is terrible. The one thing Lancaster hasn’t been able to do is get selection right.

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England coach Stuart Lancaster reacts after the game

“They either go with too many ball-carriers or not enough. If you look at that line break Mike Brown made against Scotland, the left-hand side winger [Jack Nowell] was about three or four metres behind him and he [Nowell] just kept on jogging down the same line. He should have scored that try.

“I think it’s a lack of work ethic and that’s what sticks out for me with England. Burrell, Joseph and Watson are all great carriers but none of them work hard enough off the ball to support. They don’t have someone like [New Zealand’s] Conrad Smith.

“It’s the same with the No 8 [Billy] Vunipola – a great ball-carrier but just doesn’t work hard enough off the ball. Compare him to [the All Blacks’] Kieran Read, there’s a massive gap there. When everything goes right for England, and they win the physical contest and are able to dominate, they look like the best team in the world. But as soon as you stop that, they really come back to the field.”

Jones believes Barritt would solve the problem of midfield balance, and that fly-half George Ford is a “seriously good player”. But it is the Welsh – who, with Australia, Fiji and Uruguay, are in England’s World Cup pool – who have impressed the Aussie most.

“The way their forwards attack at the moment is probably the best in the world,” Jones said. “They run very good lines, their breakdown work is superb. I still don’t enjoy the way their backs attack – they’re too wide and too deep.

“But I think they’re holding back a bit, and they’ll evolve off that – if they took a leaf out of Ireland’s book, for instance, and threw some loop plays off Jamie Roberts.” Ireland, he added, became increasingly conservative during the Six Nations, too reliant on Johnny Sexton’s kicking at fly-half and in need of “more line breakers”.

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Ireland skipper Paul O'Connell

So was there anything in the Six Nations to keep New Zealand’s coach Steve Hansen or South Africa’s Heyneke Meyer awake at night?

“I think they’d be worried about the progress of Wales,” said Jones, “and that if England get it right in the three months’ preparation they’ll have, when Lancaster will have all the resources he wants, they can  improve considerably. England will have home advantage in the World Cup, which definitely counts for a lot, but Wales are more or less at home, too.

“In the southern hemisphere people see the Six Nations as being physical, attritional rugby. I think they [Hansen and Meyer] do fear the English scrum but you can go through a Test match and not have a scrum until the 25th minute. You can’t rely on it to be a game-winning factor,  or what you base your game on. That’s where England need to be more flexible.”

All the Six Nations teams will draw breath in the summer and charge again. Maybe, once they get here in September, it will be the southern-hemisphere heavyweights who will feel the heat.

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