Lewis Moody column: A case of what might have been – now England can take another step in New Zealand

 

Another second place for England but this was a step forward from last year. Stuart Lancaster’s side have made strides over this Six Nations, even if he will be looking back at that French game and thinking what might have been.

In private Lancaster may rue a couple of the selections he didn’t make on the bench – not having a fly-half and then being left with Luther Burrell on the wing as that game was lost in the last few minutes when it was England’s to win. That will frustrate him, but in terms of the continuity of their performances this has been a good season for England, with the game against Ireland in particular one that can prove the making of this side. They are creating their own identity, their own style of play, their own image and I like what I am seeing.

There is reason to be optimistic, not least the consistency across the field from the Hartley-Lawes-Launchbury combination at the line-out to Mike Brown’s threat from full-back, but next up is an even bigger challenge – three Tests in New Zealand. This is a tour that could make or break England’s World Cup chances.

A 3-0 whitewash off the back of a first Test when England will be without a raft of key men, left at home for the Premiership final, is the worst-case scenario and would be a real blow to their World Cup preparation. Going into the tournament you need to be confident, know your side, have everything in place – you do not learn on the job come a World Cup.

 

This tour is going to be a marker for where England will feature in the World Cup and beyond the first Test it is possible to believe England might succeed down there rather than fearing the worst.

This side can make a mark in New Zealand. I don’t think they are far off winning there. Take the last two games they have played against New Zealand – that win two years ago and a very close defeat last year. If they had looked after their own ball inside the 22 it could have been another win. Those little areas, like against France, are the difference between winning and losing against the top sides. If they can deal with those aspects then they can win the second Test and set up a decider.

The areas where England need to improve are dealing with pressure and executing when the game is tight. They showed us they can do it against Ireland, having not done it against New Zealand and France. How they cut out those little errors that can cost matches is key.

I was talking to Andy Robinson in Rome this weekend about how in the build-up to 2003 the coaches put us through scenario after scenario in training where we were two points down, three points ahead, five points down with two minutes to go, and we rehearsed them again and again and again. Games at the highest level are invariably close – look at England against France and Ireland, Ireland against France – and our preparation meant we had already almost lived those situations 100 times over. It became the norm. You have to put yourselves under pressure to operate correctly in the most intense moments, and make sure that it is not only your first-choice side that can do that but also the likes of George Ford and Anthony Watson.

Overall England deserve plaudits for their performances over the last couple of months and, while there has been encouragement across the side, there are four players I would pick out. Courtney Lawes has stepped up, and not just at the line-out. He has shone all round the pitch, producing the big hits and the big carries.

Brown has stood out at 15. He has been so consistent with his performances and so hard to stop. Positionally he has been outstanding and he has a strong case to be player of the tournament, while Danny Care has also been instrumental in helping win games for England. His threat at the breakdown and his reading of the game is first rate, whether to go himself or put others into holes like he did for Farrell in Rome. He deserves a round of applause.

As does Dave Wilson. He may not be an obvious choice but you want players to step up when given the opportunity and he had a lot of doubters over whether he should have been starting. Would he cope? Would he be fit enough? Did he have a game beyond the scrum? Yes, yes and yes. To see him developing into an international-class player has been a pleasure.

The final word, though, has to be for Brian O’Driscoll. It was a fitting way for the great man to bow out of the game and it was a championship he and Ireland deserved. He will be missed.

Lewis Moody is a Land Rover HITZ ambassador. Land Rover are a partner of HITZ, a Premiership Rugby programme which tackles some of the greatest challenges facing young people today. www.jaguarlandrover.com/hitz/

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