England's performance in South Africa left me with a feeling of heightened anticipation for the big tests to come. The autumn internationals will be a challenge, as will the Six Nations, given the current strength of Wales, but this England team showed signs of genuine progress.
Everyone is aware of how difficult it is for any team to win in South Africa. To come away with two losses and a draw could be perceived by some as a poor tour; however, the performances went a long way to show how far England have come. Had captain Dylan Hartley not turned down the chance of three points in favour of going for the corner and had England managed to control the ball better in the last few minutes of the game, this draw could easily have been transformed into a win.
They now know where they are relative to the elite opposition south of the Equator; they know what they have to do to get across the line, which is invaluable experience for the younger players to take into the next international series. The way they recovered from setbacks in the previous Tests, the way they were dominated at the end of the first half and the start of the second but still managed to battle back within a score of victory where many previous touring England sides might have fallen, leaves me quietly happy.
The way Stuart Lancaster began his period in charge during the Six Nations led to a leap in expectations, which was unrealistic. I would argue England overperformed in the Six Nations in the sense that there was no established platform for them to reproduce that form consistently. Stuart and the players he has brought in are still learning about themselves.
A lot of the young players in South Africa were introduced by the previous regime – Dan Cole, Ben Youngs, Ben Foden, Manu Tuilagi, Chris Ashton. That has enabled Stuart to draft in his own new caps who have done well, including the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Alex Goode, Mike Brown, Geoff Parling and Owen Farrell. You never know how new caps will adapt, but they all took their chances brilliantly. To single one out, Alex got his first start and was good under the high ball, his kicking was great but more importantly he was tenacious around the pitch, which I always like to see.
There is a real sense of unity and freshness about the set-up, which will mean inevitably a big call for success in the autumn series. Historically, the southern hemisphere teams have travelled north in November more successfully than we have going south in June. But this latest round of matches across the board has gone a long way to improving our chances.
Wales will be seething that they did not manage to take a victory against Australia, particularly in the final two Tests. They were on the back foot for the first hour of the opener but came back strongly at the close and might have edged it. They have to figure out how to win those big games. Ireland had their one chance in 125 years to beat New Zealand away and they did not take it.
Top-line sport is all about taking opportunities. That goes for England as well. They can take great credit from the final drawn Test in South Africa but there was an opportunity to win that they did not take. England is a big, important rugby-playing nation. We can't play the development card indefinitely. Lancaster and his team, now augmented by the permanent appointment of Andy Farrell, will be acutely aware of that.
The southern hemisphere nations are still a step in front in terms of their understanding of how to close a game out. As Sir Clive Woodward pointed out, it is all about thinking clearly under pressure. You have to emulate that in training. In 2003 we would go through various scenarios that might come up and try to replicate them – keeping possession or taking a few points with a drop-goal routine. Whatever it is, it has to be done with the intensity of match day.
The northern hemisphere teams fronted up in the physical battle on all the summer tours. That is not where the wins got away. I like to think that the England team will have learnt a lot over the last month. For any team to be successful there has to be competition for places. England have that now.
Lewis Moody is a TAG Heuer ambassador; TAG Heuer is the official watch of England Rugby
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