Which players in this young England team can be stars of 2015?
Goode, Cole, Wood and Launchbury can go the distance but, for all the academies, the jury is out on the rest
Sunday 25 November 2012
This is, Graham Rowntree observed last week, a young England side. Well we knew that and, if we did not, they have proved it conclusively on successive weekends, first against Australia and here against South Africa.
There is little between this England side and the Springbok and Wallaby sides who stand second and third in the global rankings now. The difference, as Rowntree, England's forwards coach, would probably admit, lies mainly in the brain, and that has been an England failing since time immemorial.
What we do not know is how long it will take England to repair this deficiency. Certainly not in time to face New Zealand for the final autumn international next Saturday.
It is worth reflecting that Rowntree's England started with 240 caps, almost exactly the same (244) as the XV that played the Springboks four years ago in the opening weeks of Martin Johnson's tenure as manager. The only player of absolute class in that XV of 2008 was Phil Vickery, and his best years were then behind him; moreover England lost that match 42-6.
But if Rowntree thinks his side is wet behind the ears, what about the first starting XV picked by Clive Woodward against South Africa in 1997. Comparison here has some relevance. Woodward's side contained no more than 141 caps (of which 57 belonged to Jason Leonard). True, they lost 29-11, far more than yesterday's one-point difference, but they did include players who would go on to be 2003 World Cup legends: in the back row Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back, at half-back Matt Dawson and Mike Catt, and Will Greenwood at centre.
"England have the players, they just have to learn now," Woodward observed after the defeat eight days ago by Australia. The trick is to spot the players who will be the mainstays of England's assault on the home World Cup in 2015 and, on that, the jury is still out.
Would it be rash to name four? Alex Goode, Dan Cole, Tom Wood and Joe Launchbury look to be players who, allowing for injuries, will go the distance, and of that quartet, Goode, Launchbury and Wood have only 20 caps between them. Granted, England players tend to mature later but, in this era of professionalism and academy training, we are entitled to expect more.
In Launchbury we have a prototype for the future. How strange that two 21-year-old locks should already have become go-to players for their respective countries, Launchbury for England and Eben Etzebeth for South Africa. They opposed each other when England beat the Baby Boks in the Under-20 World Cup of 2011, and Launchbury was England's player of the tournament.
Neither has arrived here by the conventional route: Etzebeth, 6ft 7in and 18st 6lb, came from the unfashionable Cape Town school, Tygerberg High, played for University of Cape Town and was fast-tracked into the Stormers, his Super 15 franchise, then this year, the senior Springbok squad.
Launchbury, rejected by Harlequins for a senior contract, spent a productive season with Worthing before being pointed towards London Wasps who have no doubt whatsoever that he will be an England player for years to come. At 6ft 6in and 18st 1lb, he can go toe to toe with Etzebeth and will doubtless be doing so for a long time; for a player making his first start against the second best side in the world (albeit shorn by injury of 10 first choices), this was some performance.
How many others will still be running out in the white shirt in 2015? Yesterday suggested that not even England know precisely how to use Manu Tuilagi, since he hardly touched the ball in the first half and then became part of an England back division beating in vain against the green defensive wall. Danny Care and Ben Youngs have endured frustration against Australia and South Africa respectively and not once did either perceive the chance to make their trademark break in loose play.
Three forwards, Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Ben Morgan, are works in progress and it was significant that Morgan was still working hard at the end, the first time in eight appearances that he has played the full 80 minutes. He needed to, since the demotion of Thomas Waldrom, the Leicester No 8, was harsh given the consistency of his work against the Wallabies the previous weekend, but Morgan, clearly, should be the player of the future.
But not once yesterday did England suggest they knew how to dig their way out of a hole. Where did they want to play the game and how did they hope to get there? The battering ram was getting them nowhere, neither was the kicking good enough to establish field position. Almost the first thing that Owen Farrell produced when he replaced Toby Flood was a chip kick like those purveyed so effectively by Australia last weekend, but it is time for England to invent their own plays.
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