Enjoyable as it has been to wallow in Jonny Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning dropped goal from 10 years ago, the seminal moment on the minds of current players and coaches in recent days was an offload by an All Black last weekend.
The dexterous pass by Ma’a Nonu to create Julian Savea’s match-turning try for New Zealand at Twickenham was seen as an exemplar of the only thing England lacked. The only thing – but possibly everything.
Where, we wondered, was the same smooth awareness, assurance and execution among the England backs? Even allowing for the fact that Nonu was playing his 87th Test compared with the 30 caps so far accumulated by the home team’s midfielders Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees and Joel Tomkins, it felt teeth-grindingly familiar to watch clunky handling, bungled switch moves and wasted overlaps in the England cause.
Twelvetrees was rightly praised for finding some space with his sidestep and heads-up running, but half the time he looked afraid or unwilling to pass to the men outside him. Savea, Charles Piutau and Israel Dagg were integral to the way the All Blacks wanted to play the game, whereas Mike Brown, Chris Ashton and the out-of-position Ben Foden were scarcely less peripheral to England than the outside backs of generations gone by who were likelier to catch frostbite than a pass from their fly-half.
Worcester’s coach Dean Ryan declared that the England team would be better off not trying to emulate the All Blacks. Stick to what you’re good at, boys: scrums, mauls, round-the-corner forward drives and so on. A more recent England flanker, meanwhile, James Haskell, sent a congratulatory text to Nonu, with whom he played for a Japanese club last year. “That was the most unbelievable offload I’ve seen, that skill, that timing,” said Haskell, while supporting an Aviva Premiership Movember event.
England’s head coach Stuart Lancaster admitted before the autumn series that his team trail New Zealand in the number of players who are “good in every component piece in their game, and have an x-factor in two”. Lancaster sometimes substitutes “points of difference” for “x-factor”. Other commentators attempting to bottle an elusive essence in the past week have tried “genius gap” or “miracle ball”. The problem, however you phrase it, is that if something is endemically amiss in the English game it is unlikely to be put right before the 2015 World Cup.
So how about the simpler matter of personnel? Haskell enthusiastically advanced the “clever feet” and “great rugby brain” of Elliot Daly, his 21-year-old team-mate at Wasps who is a possible alternative for England at centre, although his club have been mainly using him at full-back. Another Wasp, Christian Wade, would have started for England against Argentina if he hadn’t strained a hamstring in training. The previous weekend Wade scored two tries in Wasps’ win at Gloucester; one of them a sidestepping surge past James Simpson-Daniel that Haskell described as “the best finish I have ever seen”.
Wade is not quite fit enough to resume against Bath in the Premiership today but Daly will be in action. Otherwise, untimely injuries have held back this hugely exciting prospect. “I’ve coached great players in Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny,” said David Young, Wasps’ director rugby, recalling his previous job at Cardiff Blues. “I’ve got no hesitation putting Elliot in the same category in terms of talent and dedication. He needs one or two things to fall into place to be picked by England. But they asked for him to be at Twickenham as 24th man last weekend, and he went with our blessing.”
Daly, like Halfpenny, can also kick goals from huge distances. Haskell mused that a centre pairing of Manu Tuilagi – recovering from surgery on a torn chest muscle – and Daly would give England footwork, strength and pace. Further out, everyone – including Lancaster – wants Wade to get a run. Young said: “Christian has that x-factor. You can look at his defensive positioning, but he is improving on that.”
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