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Guscott column: England will improve this year, but so will the All Blacks

By Jeremy Guscott

To close the gap on the Kiwis in under two years is a big ask of this England side but they showed yesterday they can win the tight games – even if they were a bit fortunate with the decisions.

They took their chances when they came which shows their progression under Eddie Jones. The fact they finished like a train backs up Jones’ assertion that they must get even fitter to catch the world champions. The other key area they must develop is having commanders-in-chief in key positions throughout the side.

It’s no coincidence that when Clive Woodward came into the England set-up his priority was raising our fitness levels 20 per cent so we could run for longer, and more aggressively, than any other side in the world. Eddie is doing the same with this England side and it’s crucial they continue to make gains on New Zealand, who are still the fittest team in the world.

Eddie has not shied away from that and has made a big point of it to his team and through the media. He has made it clear he is not there to develop players’ skills – Test level the skills should be there – but he can make them fitter.

But England must find proper outlets to benefit from the harder, more aggressive runners. They lacked a few ball carriers against Argentina, and it improved yesterday with man-of-the- match Joe Launchbury taking it to the Aussies and earning some hard yards. Chris Robshaw also made inroads. This is another huge area that sets New Zealand apart as they are all comfortable on the ball from 1-15.

The new Kiwi partnerships have matured over the past 12 months and any possible areas of weakness, such as the midfield, now look world class with Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams filling the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith axis.

While Jones has tried out one or two new players, New Zealand seem to keep finding them on a regular basis.

They have left their starting props at home – Owen Franks and Joe Moody – and are blooding Kane Hames and Nepu Laulala without any great drama. Both will learn a huge amount from a European tour like this and playing alongside the established stars. Same goes for Brodie Retallick and Ben Smith, both back in New Zealand.

New All Blacks always seem to adapt to Test rugby faster than most other nations because they are training and playing alongside the best every time. So as a team they are always improving at a faster rate than their rivals. But, as the past 12 months has shown, they are beatable. Three times in a year is a pretty big number for them in fact – but you learn so much more through defeat that if anything it will serve them well.

During the Rugby Championship, for example, Aaron Smith, who is one of the best box kickers in the game started experimenting by running the ball out of defence on occasion. The All Blacks had clearly realised they could be more dangerous and so evolved their attack.

They have a number of players who mix two things that usually don’t go together – maverick ability and mental strength. They have at least five I would say – Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Kieran Read, Brodie Retallick, Ben Smith – who are the real commanders in chief who are arguably the best in the world in their positions and have that leadership ability to drive the team forward while also having the skills to do the extraordinary.

Sonny Bill Williams, Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Ryan Crotty aren’t far behind in the leadership stakes either, along with the maverick talents of Dane Coles, Rieko Ioane and Nehe Milner-Skudder – plus the new No.6 Vaea Fifita looks to have some X-factor about him.

And while a few of England’s recent U20s are making great strides, New Zealand have a batch of U20s who will be fighting to get into that World Cup squad, namely Asafo Aumua (hooker), Luke Jacobson (blindside/No.8), Will Jordan (full-back) and Tiaan Falcon (fly-half).

They have a combination of brilliant world class players at the top of their game and such massive talent coming through they will never stop improving. There’s never any drop off. The fact that Julian Savea cannot get a look in shows how competitive the New Zealand squad is. Jones is trying to create a similar culture with England, as James Haskell can testify.

Not many sides could lose over 500 caps in one hit as New Zealand did in 2015 and stay at the same standard. But the big names have been replaced so well that one of the new batch, Beauden Barrett, is already recognised as the best player in the world.

Like a snake sheds its skin, New Zealand seem to be in perpetual regeneration where the next layer is brand new perfect. They are unrelenting and every All Black plays without fear, with such joy in expression that shows off their high intensity, competitive nature. This despite their places always being under threat. It’s a remarkable mindset.

Especially when you consider that they must contend with every team upping their game by 20 per cent when they face them.

So while the last 12 months has shown they are beatable, it will be exciting to see if they can explode into an even better outfit in 2018 and how England maintain their place in the pecking order because Australia are a coming force again from 12 months ago.

After a mediocre start against Argentina and a scoreline that flattered against the Wallabies, England will need to build momentum in the Six Nations.

England dogged out victory yesterday but are not quite at the previous heights they have been under Eddie Jones and he’ll hope the new players can accelerate in the next few months. A fascinating year awaits because New Zealand should only get better ahead of the autumn meeting between the two sides in 2018.

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