If one definition of madness is repeatedly doing the same thing in the expectation of a different outcome, England suddenly find themselves teetering on the brink of sanity: no bad thing this close to a World Cup that has almost limitless potential to drive them nuts.
By beating a dangerous, if peculiarly off-colour, Ireland side 21-13 in the last of their warm-up matches, the tournament hosts proved themselves capable of identifying a problem and solving it through brain power. Crikey. Wonders will never cease.
Being strictly accurate, they solved a number of problems. The last time they had squared up to the green-shirted monster, in Dublin back in March, they lost the aerial battle so comprehensively that it was tempting to wonder whether they had taken off in the first place. On Saturday, the Irish were the ones with their wings clipped. Hell, the home side even scored a try direct from a high diagonal kick to the corner.
And then there was the line-out, an essential set-piece operation that had resembled a trouserless West End farce in the meeting with France in Paris late last month. By restoring the Lions Test lock Geoff Parling to the engine room of the scrum, the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, took a big step towards ensuring that things would be better this time around – not spotless by any means, but a whole lot cleaner and tidier. It was no coincidence that England’s grip on the contest loosened when Parling was forced off the field with a shoulder injury early in the second half.
As for the breakdown, not so much a bone of contention as an entire graveyard-full of it, there was an advance up the hillside here too: partly because the Gloucester No 8 Ben Morgan, making his second start since recovering from a badly busted leg, looked a little more like his old self; largely because the Northampton flanker Tom Wood made such a tremendous fist of keeping the likes of Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien out of everyone’s hair. Wood did commit the cardinal sin of losing an arm-wrestle for the ball with Jonathan Sexton, which was a little like Jesse James finishing second in a shoot-out with the Milkybar Kid, but such was the quality of his all-round performance, the Englishman could be forgiven.
All of which may not be the greatest news for the likes of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, James Haskell and Billy Vunipola as Lancaster contemplates his starting XV for the big matches with Fiji, Wales and Australia over the next 26 days. The coach indicated some time ago that in a perfect world he would run his best combination in all three of those contests in an effort to secure knockout qualification at the earliest possible point in the competition. For wholly positive reasons, there is still a good deal of debate surrounding the identity of the “best”, particularly in the back five of the pack.
“I do think Wood turned in a man-of-the-match performance that echoed what he’s done over the course of the training camp,” Lancaster said. “He’s the fittest forward we have now that Calum Clark [the occasional England captain’s back-row confrère at Franklin’s Gardens] has left the squad: those two were always at the front. Tom’s leadership and decision-making were excellent. I thought Parling was excellent too and I think there’s a lesson there about having intelligent rugby players on the field.”
It was one of Lancaster’s more telling comments – the kind he delivers when he is prepared to offer some partial revelation of his direction of thought. Both Wood and Parling were influential at the line-out and as England simply cannot put their game on the field without complete reliability in this area – George Ford, such a creative spirit with a reliable supply of front-foot ball, is something less than a genius when it comes to constructing silk purses from sows’ ears – it hardly requires a leap of the imagination to see the two of them in the run-on side against the Fijians a week on Friday.
Unless something very odd happens, we will also see Anthony Watson and Jonny May on the wings. Watson has star quality dripping from his pores: the athleticism that propelled him above and beyond the covering Simon Zebo, no mean athlete himself, was wondrous enough even without the instinctive completion of the try that followed.
As for May, we are entering the realms of unrecognisability. After he was dropped following the opening two rounds of the Six Nations because he was wasteful, error-prone and low on confidence, his transformation is one of the more startling outcomes of the three-month training camp.
“He has belief in himself now,” Lancaster said, after watching May open the scoring with a decisive wide finish two minutes into the contest and then giving the Irish defenders all the hassle they could handle. “It’s grown in him in camp and we’ve seen him grow as a person too. He’s the first guy on the computer, analysing his performance and wanting to improve. He couldn’t have done any more, that’s for sure.”
Which leaves the scrum and a couple of humiliating surrenders on the English put-in. This was far from ideal, but Fiji will be horribly weak at the set piece, Wales have issues at tight-head prop and the Wallabies do a million other things a million times better.
And anyway, Lancaster would only be bored if there was nothing to keep him awake at night.