New Zealand 28 England 27 analysis: Red Rose has still to flower fully
Lancaster’s men have shown a pleasing improvement on this tour but must learn to avoid mistakes at crucial moments
Unless something goes horribly wrong in Christchurch and Hamilton this week, England’s players will head for home, the beach or the obligatory stag weekend in Las Vegas with their reputation in New Zealand pleasurably enhanced. At the same time, with just a dozen Test matches remaining before the World Cup in the autumn of 2015, the tourists will be aghast if all they have proved is that the strength in depth of their squad now guarantees they can lose with dignity.
To be beaten by the All Blacks in the two Tests to date by a combined total of six points would have been the stuff of dreams on many past tours. The contrast with the troubled excursions to New Zealand in 2008 and 2011 in particular has been a trip planned with a welter of research by the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, that has shown England to be business-like and competitive rather than boozy and managerially incompetent.
Whatever unfolds in Tuesday’s dirt-tracker assignment against the Crusaders and Saturday’s third and concluding Test back on the North Island, it appears we no longer have to suffer the disgrace of the country with the world’s greatest rugby wealth and playing numbers serving as the southern hemisphere’s whipping boys.
Of course England and their earnest captain, Chris Robshaw, yearned to be winners on this tour, so they will end it frustrated. No one else, let it be noted, is currently beating New Zealand either. The reigning world champions are now two wins short of a world record for successive Test wins – if England fail to derail them in Hamilton, it will be down to Australia in Sydney in August – and their record run of home victories has moved on to 32.
England’s outside-backs scored three tries in Dunedin yesterday, including the full-back Mike Brown’s fifth in seven Tests this calendar year, yet their only lasting satisfaction was in forcing the All Blacks to pull some of their fluffiest rabbits out of the hat in a high-class 25 minutes spanning the half-time interval.
A week ago we marvelled at an England team losing 20-15 in Auckland in spite of missing a substantial contingent of Saracens and Northampton players.
Yesterday the savagely skilful way the All Blacks turned a 10-6 deficit into a 28-13 lead prompted Lancaster to remind us of the players he was unable to take on this tour, including no fewer than five Lions Test forwards in Alex Corbisiero, Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs and Tom Croft. These men, plus Christian Wade on the wing and George Ford at fly-half, should be competing for spots in November’s rematch with New Zealand at Twickenham that kicks off a series also comprising South Africa, Samoa and Australia.
Owen Farrell was reliable with his kicking as he landed four from five
It could be argued that England will be stronger for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, rather than the one closer at hand. Nine of New Zealand’s players yesterday were aged 30 or over – the return of the absent superstars Dan Carter and Kieran Read would add to that number by the time of the 2015 final – to England’s one in Geoff Parling.
But home advantage in next year’s tournament will be surely be worth a few points. Enough, perhaps, to get past Wales and Australia in the pool, after which all England’s potential knock-out matches will be at Twickenham, with New Zealand set to meet them in either the semi-finals or the final.
In any case, as Toulon have showed by winning the club game’s domestic-European double, quality is the trump card, whether you are 18 or 38. England in Dunedin were one big hand-off by Manu Tuilagi away from vindication of Lancaster’s dubious selection of the Leicester centre on the right wing. If Tuilagi had finished his “Run, Forrest, run” moment instead of being hauled down by Ben Smith, England might have led 17-3.
Tuilagi told us in these pages a few weeks ago that he is the fastest man in the England squad over 10 metres; 70 metres was a different challenge, one which he might also have solved by linking with Brown inside him. Tuilagi’s normal practice is to run straight and burst tackles. On the wide outside he was reduced to crabbing and stuttering. He surely has to reappear in the No 13 jersey, now or in the autumn and the 2015 Six Nations’ Championship, during which England are away to Wales and Ireland.
A nagging worry about England and their World Cup bid is that in every major tournament and series under Lancaster they have lost at least one big match; this season it has been against New Zealand home and away, and France in Paris.
On the upside, next summer they will enjoy the rest and conditioning that Joe Launchbury, among a few on this tour, has looked as if he could do with, and Tuilagi and the Bath hooker Rob Webber have re-emerged with verve after spending much of the domestic season injured.
Furthermore, the scrum and line-out are secure platforms – but the inability to complete good try-scoring chances is quite the opposite. When Billy Twelvetrees threw the risky inside pass that led to Smith’s crucial try early in yesterday’s second half, Lancaster’s much-vaunted second playmaker ignored a perfect overlap developing outside him.
England have put an end to their white jersey being the flag of tame defeatists. Only by ironing out such mistakes will they turn it into the banner of world-beaters.
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