Is English Rugby Finally on the Way Up?

England are finally beginning to challenge the dominance of the Southern Hemisphere at more than just set pieces.

To get a sense of the improvement in English Rugby over the past few weeks and in particular against Australia on Saturday, a trip back to the 22nd November 2008 would be an excellent place to start. I know exactly where I was on that day – at Twickenham, to watch England take on South Africa in the Autumn internationals. Due to a run of outrageous luck, whenever I went to Twickenham, in spite of however bad their form was, England always seemed to win, and win well. England started the game brightly, winning a penalty early on thanks to a certain Danny Cipriani, handing England a 3–0 lead within minutes. However, this momentum couldn’t last. South Africa settled, and a charged-down Danny Cipriani kick handed the Springboks the lead.

The rest of the game was an embarrassing nightmare for England. Despite being a man down at two points in the match, South Africa were able to absorb English pressure and then capitalise on the slightest mistake. Going forward, England built up phase after phase without the incision to make the possession count. By the end of the game, all I could hear beyond the blackness of my hands over my eyes was shouts of “Boka! Boka!” from the large South African next to me, as his beloved Boks ran in enough tries to seal England’s heaviest home defeat.

Fast forward to November 2010, and post two encounters with Southern Hemisphere opposition, Martin Johnson’s men look like a different team. And in many respects, they are. Gone are names such as Monye, Borthwick, Noon, Sackey, Ellis, and, notably, Cipriani. In their place, is a fresh generation of players who seem to be finally showing the form for England that they show so often in the Premiership, in particular Youngs, Ashton and Lawes.

In the 26–16 loss against New Zealand last weekend, this brave new English team by no means disgraced themselves. At first, the game looked like it could turn into a brutal replay of South Africa in 2008. At 20–6 just after half time it looked as though England were out of the game. New Zealand seemed like a team going through the motions, outgunning England in terms of pace, power and general intensity, scoring two tries within the first 20 minutes. They were also dominant at the lineout, England only really competing with the All Blacks at the scrum.

However, flashes of the team that would go on to beat Australia the following weekend were very much in evidence towards the end of the game. England showed that when they use their solid scrum to build a strong attacking platform, and then go forward with purpose and confidence, they can score tries against anyone. While a certain amount of luck was needed to secure Dylan Hartley’s try, the fact that it was the first try New Zealand have conceded in three northern hemisphere tours speaks volumes. By the end, it was New Zealand who were the ones left desperately defending. Despite the loss, there would have been few in Twickenham with their hands over their eyes.

The game against New Zealand showed that the England of 2010 are no longer just cannon fodder for southern hemisphere opposition. A 26–16 loss against the tri-nations champions is no disgrace, and few would have predicted a win. A similar loss against an equally on form Australia the following weekend would have been equally respectable. Australia had beaten New Zealand just weeks before the encounter, and have a roster of young stars that is formidable.

Many of their players are of a similar age to some of our test debutants and yet, players like James O’Connor and Quade Cooper have already constructed formidable reputations for themselves in a way our young guns are yet to do – James O’Connor has more caps than years to his name. This was an Australian side on form, and constructed on a bed of bright new talent.

Against this backdrop, England’s 35–18 victory is even more remarkable. More remarkable still is how the hints of improvement in previous matches seemed to finally manifest themselves in this one match. Commentating on Sky Sports, Stuart Barnes described it as English rugby’s finest result since the world cup final in 2003. England played with a confidence and sense of purpose that seemed to have been eluding them. Within the first minute of play, they had already built an attack of 8 phases. They seemed like a team intent on playing as much running rugby as possible. For a side who have been criticised for relying too heavily on kicking, both from hand and for goal, the very concept seemed anathema to them, brilliantly exhibited by Chris Ashton’s second try. Ben Youngs, surely England’s best player and the man at the centre of their revival, had the gall to dummy off his own tryline, setting up a 90m move that must rank amongst Twickenham’s greatest tries. The England of two years ago would simply have hoofed the ball down the pitch.

Players both young and old found the sort of form England need to be great again – 21 year old Courtney Lawes played with a confidence and authority not usually seen in a man so early in his test career, and Mike Tindall and Mark Cueto both rampaged like men ten years their junior.

The performance was not without its flaws – England gifted Australia a potential way back in to the game with an overthrown lineout that led to a well executed Kurtley Beale try. Such mistakes will need to be ironed out before they get on the plane to New Zealand next year.

If there is one thing that the past decade of English rugby has taught us, it is that great teams are not built overnight. The world cup winners of 2003 needed 4 years to mature before their triumph. Perhaps setbacks like the embarrassment against South Africa in 2008 are the sort of failure that is required to forge a great English team. The decision to give Martin Johnson the time to restore England appears to be finally paying dividends.

It could just be a flash in the pan, or just maybe it could be a resurgence that will finally allow English supporters to come out from behind the sofa.

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