England wrapped up their final Test of the Autumn Internationals today with a victory over Australia. Though the series ended on a relative high, England’s performances over the course of the four games have left some considerable doubts and question marks over their aspirations for both the Six Nations and the World Cup next year.
That said, England’s pack is generally an area of real strength. When all are fully fit, each tight-five position goes two or three deep, with the second row being especially impressive. Courtney Lawes is arguably an all-world player, but in Attwood, Kruis, Launchbury and Parling England can boast four more tried and tested locks. As a result, the line-out has been the best in world rugby this year – England have won over 90% of their own throws this year. It’s a weapon England have utilised effectively, and should continue to do so.
England’s scrum ate Australia’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You almost felt bad for the Aussie pack. The Wallabies’ scrum has been a disastrous laughing-stock for the better part of the last decade, and really it’s about time that the set-piece became a greater part of the Australian rugby cultural consciousness and an area that is cultivated through junior levels. Nevertheless, it was striking just how good the English scrummaging was throughout the four games, and it bodes well for upcoming contests against weaker scrums that will be encountered next year.
The back-row remains an area of contention. Chris Robshaw’s detractors criticise his not being ‘a genuine open-side’, but actually the way he plays is perfectly compatible with England’s methods. Stuart Lancaster’s team isn’t really reliant on turnovers or very quick ball for their effective operation. Additionally, not many international teams play with a traditional seven, which is a reflection of the increased precedence placed on size as well as collective ‘jackling’. Even if he is not as skilled or prolific as McCaw or Hooper, Robshaw does his bit at the breakdown. It’s in other areas where his importance shows – he’s a tackle machine, a useful ball-carrier/jumper and an outstanding captain who defines ‘leading by example’. But questions do remain – is Robshaw’s impact all that irreplaceable? Would selecting a more specialist player at seven help to resolve England’s issues with continuity and balance?
The World Cup will be awash with brilliant number-eights, but England seems content to play it safe. Both Billy Vunipola and Ben Morgan are hugely powerful ball-carriers, but they are also somewhat one-dimensional and susceptible to fading out of games. A case has to be made for James Haskell, now captain of Wasps, to be selected at eight. Though Morgan scored three tries over four games, Haskell is more dynamic and a better ball-winner than the incumbents; his ebullient and effusive personality is a positive presence on and off the pitch. If Tom Wood is to remain at blindside flanker, then England would possess two explosive and well-rounded athletes in their back-row. When Haskell started against Samoa, he offered the combination of speed, power and omnipresence that teams like South Africa and France lean on so heavily.
There are grey areas all over the England back-line, bar perhaps Mike Brown at full-back. The last four weeks have been a period of transition for England’s half-backs. Stuart Barnes remarked earlier today that he believes Ben Youngs and George Ford have now superseded Danny Care and Owen Farrell at nine and ten. Youngs has improved England’s fluidity over the last two weeks after the pedestrian performances of an out of form Care. Youngs’ intelligent kicking also caused numerous problems for Samoa and Australia. If Care has indeed been displaced, then this change would send tumultuous through the England set-up in general – Care has been a focal point and senior player in the team for the last couple of years. It’s unclear at this point who is the best choice at scrum-half in the long-term.
In his two games as a starter, George Ford has been excellent. His passing has been vivacious, creative and precise, his kicking from hand technically flawless and accurate. The Six Nations will reveal whether he can consistently play in Test matches at this level, but the early signs are extremely promising. Ford has looked in a different stratosphere compared to Owen Farrell’s mechanical, unadventurous conservatism.
England’s midfield has been a problem for god knows how long. It’s been subject to near constant chopping and changing, strange selections and injury plagues. In last year’s Six Nations, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell formed an imposing pairing. England, four weeks ago, started debutant Kyle Eastmond and Saracens’ Brad Barritt. The Eastmond experiment (at 5ft 7 he’s incredibly undersized for a modern twelve) lasted two weeks before the way was made for George Ford. Barritt has been lauded for his defensive steel and bloody-minded approach, but the reality is that he possesses almost no attacking guile or skill, and caused opposition defences (even the ragged Samoans) little difficulty with his lumbering, straight-line carries.
Twelvetrees, after ‘heeding the advice’ given to him by management, is back in the fold and looks a good option at inside-centre. He’s as big as the South-African, Welsh and New Zealand centres, solid in defence, and his time at fly-half for Gloucester as refined his play-making abilities. He should start the Six Nations. Outside Centre is more problematic; Lancaster will have to consider whether sticking with the reliably mediocre Barritt or recalling one of Burrell or Tuilagi to the starting line-up. Tuilagi, with his bullish physicality and subtle handling, is the most talented player here, but it’s more likely that his impact will be used off the bench.
Begrudgingly, that might be the right call. On the wing, Jonny May has proven himself as a spark-plug. His try against New Zealand was an example of blazing speed and open-field running rarely seen in an England shirt. On the other side, Anthony Watson approached his first three starts with a cool-head and showed glimpses of individual brilliance as well. Having a sturdy presence at thirteen might best allow the two wingers two flourish most efficiently. This is by no means Lancaster’s only option. David Strettle has been exceptional for Saracens this year, and there is always the experience and potency of Chris Ashton to call upon. But if May and Watson get a few more games under their belts then Lancaster will probably want their ability to change games as runners on the field of play.
Generally speaking, tournament rugby, as is indeed the case with most sports, differs to Test matches or qualifiers; games are cagier, tenser, and teams can look to ‘win ugly’ rather than risk losing as a result of expansive attacking. This style actually suits this England team, and certainly has done with previous squads. England’s victorious 2003 team was firmly predicated on outstanding set-piece execution and Jonny Wilkinson’s left peg. The limited 2007 unit, after being routed 36–0 by South Africa in the group stages, managed to grit their way to the final and lose narrowly to the same team.
There’s no reason why these efforts couldn’t be emulated in 2015, but selection will be crucial. The big thing to remember about these last four weeks is that England’s squad has been depleted by injuries to seven Lions players. The good news is that England have the depth to manage this with efficient damage limitation. The bad news is that unless the slew of injuries slows down, Lancaster will struggle to build the necessary continuity, cohesion and momentum going into a major tournament. Hopefully, the majority of inactive players will return for the Six Nations campaign. The Autumn Internationals were understandably inconsistent and inconclusive, but there are most certainly positives for Lancaster to take and build upon in 2015.