Two down with one to play: if you look at the numbers in isolation, nothing adds up for England. But for my money, Saturday’s final Test in Hamilton has plenty riding on it.
Stuart Lancaster’s team may not be able to win this series with the All Blacks, or even square it, but it is absolutely within their power to strike a really solid blow ahead of next year’s World Cup – which, if we’re being honest, is providing the backdrop to the story.
The current situation takes me back to the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 2009. The tourists went into the last Test in Johannesburg off the back of two narrow defeats and on the face of it, there was nothing for them to pursue. Yet when you scratched beneath the surface, you realised that even a beaten team could come out ahead. Sure enough, an injury-riddled Lions side won that game at Ellis Park, making a big statement about themselves and their ambitions for the future in the process. I think England are in exactly the same place this weekend.
They have some fitness issues, hence the absence of Owen Farrell and Danny Care at half-back, and some concerns over fatigue: certainly, I can understand the decision to stick a battle-weary Joe Launchbury on the bench and bring Courtney Lawes back into the second row. Yet the changes should work in their favour in the long run – particularly those in midfield, where fresh combinations will aid the World Cup selection process, as well as bring fresh energy to the side.
I’m pleased to see Manu Tuilagi back at centre, where he belongs. When he was moved to the right wing for last weekend’s game, I questioned the logic of the timing. Well, I’m happy to stand by that opinion. To my mind, you play wings on the wing and centres in the centre. And Manu isn’t really an international wing of any description, let alone an English version of Julian Savea.
By restoring Tuilagi to his most effective position, ahead of Luther Burrell, the England coaches now have a genuine contest there. The same goes for the inside centre role, where Kyle Eastmond has a precious opportunity to strengthen his place in the Test squad. If he performs as well as he did in the first Test at Eden Park, it will be good news on two fronts: firstly, he will give the team a point of difference in midfield with his unusual skill set; and secondly, he will keep Billy Twelvetrees honest. Twelvetrees has all the right equipment as a No 12, but some meaningful competition never did anyone harm.
One other comment on the back division: I’d like to see someone come through as an alternative to Mike Brown at full-back. At this stage, that someone looks like being Anthony Watson, with whom I worked at London Irish until he moved to Bath.
Watson is super-quick – he showed us against the Crusaders on Tuesday – and the more he features at elite level, the more pressure he’ll put on Brown, most people’s favourite full-back of the season. It’s a stretch to imagine his present purple patch will last for ever. He needs a challenger, and Watson fits the bill.
Watching last week’s game, it struck me that despite England’s excellent start, the tide was turning in the All Blacks’ favour in the 15 minutes before the break. There were a couple of long passages of play that seemed to suck the life out of the tourists’ tight five and as a result, they found it hard to cope when the New Zealanders came steaming out for the second half. For this reason, I’m pleased to see Lawes and Dylan Hartley back in the mix for this one.
It’s always a risk to bet against the All Blacks on home soil, but on balance I take England to win, primarily because with the series lost, they can play without pressure against a team who might just drop off a little in the aftermath of their success. Belief is everything, and in order to believe, you have to know that something is possible. England flew to New Zealand secure in the knowledge that their ambitions were realistic. The important thing now is hold on to that certainty and make it count.
Brian Smith is a former England attack coach and current director of rugby at London Irish. His fee for this article will be donated to the club’s academy