Despite the importance of the Heineken Cup mid-pool round, it’s still hard to forget England and New Zealand because last weekend’s match was so compelling. You couldn’t take your eyes away from the action. You didn’t want to take a breath in case you missed a piece of action or skill. I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed it. The contest was so ferociously intense in defence and attack – so unlike any England team I’ve seen play since 2003. I’ve watched it at least three times, and every time it gets better.
Of course, the win by England has caused all kinds of debate in newspaper columns, TV and radio, social media, plus blog sites, throughout the global rugby community. It’s brilliant that one result can cause such interaction between so many nations. It shows the game’s popularity is still spreading, and that’s good news.
It’s important to bring a touch of reality to events like this, because this one huge victory will not have a bearing on England’s future unless there is something that makes it different to the other false dawns experienced in recent one-off victories.
Most of you will still agree that New Zealand are the better team, if not on the day, then over the course of this season – and for many seasons before it. Their run of 20 games undefeated against the rest of the world makes the case. England need to put a run like that together between now and 2015 to be right up there with a chance of winning the RWC 2015, and to be the No.1 team in the world would be some achievement – and that has to be Stuart Lancaster’s aim, because it would give England so much confidence to go with their home advantage.
These England players have now shown they understand that speed and accuracy in defence and attack is the way forward. The quick ball delivered in attack, and the line-speed and intensity in defence, was several levels up from what we have seen from this group in the past.
However, this squad has to improve its handling skills, particularly among the forwards. I still don’t think Dan Cole should be allowed to carry a ball, in much the same way as ‘Edward Scissorhands’ shouldn’t play with balloons. The skill and dexterity of the New Zealand team was a trademark in all their matches up to their loss at Twickenham, and the big development for England has to be having forwards comfortable with the ball in their hands. That means not just catching and running into contact, but looking up and being able to handle as well as the backs. When that base of competence is achieved this England group will really flourish.
England must establish that level of skill and consistency in performance because Dan Carter won’t miss those tackles again, Conrad Smith won’t go walkabout in defence, and Kieran Read won’t give too many interception passes between now and RWC 2015. Statistically there was very little to separate the teams, but the difference for me was that England put the All Blacks under the most severe pressure, and maintained that intensity for 80 minutes.
I’m not totally buying into the concept that England were a creative attacking machine against the All Blacks. Scores are generally a result of missed tackles or a glaring defensive mistake, and that was the case with the Manu Tuilagi and Chris Ashton tries.
However, Brad Barritt’s try was a result of returning a kick from Carter that didn’t find touch, and that is a big sign of development for this England team, who in the past would have kicked that ball straight back down the field. The fact that players looked in front of them and worked out what could be achieved, rather than the easy option of a kick, was a huge progression.
Quick ball has been one of the secrets to New Zealand’s success, and if the England pack continues to harvest it as they did against NZ then future England performances will be as promising. The English forwards won so much quick ball that the backs didn’t have to be so much inventive as accurate in the basics of back play. Catch the ball, run good lines, run at pace, and space will open up in front of you off quick ball because a team cannot defend intensely when they are retreating. A big future selection dilemma for Stuart Lancaster is who to pick at fly-half, because neither Owen Farrell nor Toby Flood in the last 12 months have been overly persuasive. All No.10s dream of working off quick ball, and Farrell had to stand flat to attract defenders and release his centres into space, which he did – but I wonder what more Freddie Burns could have done with that quick ball.
Farrell is not a running threat, and having a running fly-half makes a massive difference in attack. He makes much more room for his outside three-quarters by attracting defenders, because a runner cannot be left to run.
Of the three, Burns has the better attacking game, although he doesn’t yet have the connection with the rest of the team. A fly-half dictates the rhythm of the game, the tempo, and pulls loose forwards and inside backs here and there, keeping them guessing. What, where, when, and with who, are all split-second calculations if you are a running No.10.
It’s a different mindset playing outside a runner opposed to more of a kicking fly-half. If I was playing with Stuart Barnes off phase ball I stayed flat and close, because he could be gone in the blink of an eye and I had to be close when he went. Outside Rob Andrew, who stood deep most of the time, we had to be much deeper because he tended to crab across more and we needed more space to work in. When we did stand flat with Rob it was mainly to chase kicks.
When Burns is given another run by England the backs need to read what he’s going to do. They have to learn how he thinks and how he wants to play, what he sees ahead of him, and how he’s going to unpick the defence. Players like Burns are more intuitive than pre-programmed, and Tuilagi has to be able instinctively to read him and be on his shoulder, and so on all the way along the backline. Ashton, Ben Foden, Alex Goode and Mike Brown are all natural readers of the game, whereas Barritt and Farrell are used to a more structured game-plan.
It will take time, but Mike Catt can work on drills to get that instinctive connection. You don’t always need a whole playbook of moves, although they are very effective off set-piece, and there are enough scrums and lineouts to use them. As a backline you need to be confident enough to call those moves off other phases as well, and that’s why you need forwards comfortable with ball in hand. They don’t have to be unbelievably creative, just competent enough to catch, draw a player, and deliver a pass without panicking.
Lancaster could be in a similar situation to Robbie Deans when he has to decide between Berrick Barnes, Kurtley Beale or Quade Cooper at fly-half. Farrell Junior has a role within this squad, and a big one at that, because he is consistent and that reliability is valuable for the rest of the team. Flood is in between Farrell and Burns as a player, and will be challenging as well. However, a running 10 gives you more options and keeps the defence guessing so much more.
The balance at centre could be better, and I’m convinced that Tuilagi can switch to inside-centre and be developed in the same way Ma’a Nonu was. Tuilagi can acquire a sharper step and change of direction. He’s already explosive, and, as his confidence to off-load builds, he could do it in the same way as Sonny Bill Williams if he knows players will be on the end of it.
Barritt has been solid, and he has a place in Lancaster’s plan, but boy did he look out of place when he ran into space for his try. This might seem overly critical, but he didn’t draw Israel Dagg fully and the pass back from Tuilagi took a deflection that on any other day could have gone anywhere but into Barritt’s hands.
It’s not often I’m blown away by defence, but England put up a wall of defence from set piece through to NZ phase play that showed another level of intensity, commitment and fitness. It was inspiring. To see hit after hit stopping the All Blacks in their tracks was stimulating, and it built the atmosphere in the stadium so that the England team fed off it even more.
There is no doubt this victory will bring outward and inward pressure and expectation that an England rugby team haven’t had to live with since 2000-2003. For the All Blacks handling the pressure is second nature. It’s handed down player after player, team on team, a responsibility that has been around since time began – but this England squad and management could be the right mix, and could soon be a threat on the world stage. The Six Nations will tell us all.
For this English squad it’s a voyage, as Stuart Lancaster put it, “Hopefully, it will provide England with a future not just for the 2015 RWC, but beyond that”. If the future looks as good as last weekend, I can’t wait.
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