England left mesmerised by that All Black magic
Despite losing Dan Carter to injury New Zealand close out game in final quarter
New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu eludes the tackle of England’s Billy Vunipola at Twickenham on Saturday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.
By the time England kick off the Six Nations against France in Paris in early February the frustration of Saturday’s defeat by the All Blacks will have been overtaken by more positive emotions.
Of course they would have loved to have beaten New Zealand for the second successive time but there has been enough autumn improvement to suggest 2014 will be a good year.
Stuart Lancaster is already looking ahead, using the analogy of a clock face to articulate the belief that his side are finally making up for lost time: “I think we’re at 10 o’clock” having seen his side win two of their three November tests. “Teams at their lowest point are at six o’clock; those at their peak are at 12 o’clock. What the great teams – Manchester United, the All Blacks, Barcelona – do is change their team at 11 or 12 o’clock and stay there. I think we’re rising up. Obviously the idea is to get to 11 and 12 o’clock by 2015 and stay there.”
Rucking around the clock has a certain ring to it – Bill Haley would have approved – but Lancaster concedes England are not yet soaring comets in terms of their cutting edge.
The statistics of Saturday’s outstanding match showed New Zealand enjoyed only 38 per cent possession and 40 per cent territory yet still scored three tries to one and won a game they were losing early in the final quarter. England, as against Argentina the previous week, were unable to finish what they had started.
Strike rate target
Their end-of-year stats tell a broadly similar story. The final 2013 ledger shows they won nine of 11 tests and scored 23 tries (15 against Argentina) at an average of barely two per game, even at home. By way of comparison the unbeaten All Blacks, now within one victory in Ireland of an unblemished calendar year, have played 13 tests and scored 49 tries, an average of 3.77 per match. That is a gap England must close if they are to win trophies.
It will, accordingly, be fascinating to see if England can improve their strike rate, not just in the forthcoming Six Nations but on their three-test tour to New Zealand in June. Manu Tuilagi may play little part in the Six Nations because of injury but Lancaster will be keen to see what a fit Marland Yarde and Christian Wade can do. If Anthony Watson, Luther Burrell, Henry Trinder and Jonny May enjoy a productive December, opportunity could materialise for them also.
About 38 players will tour New Zealand next summer, although a weakened team will have to be chosen for the First test on June 7th because of the proximity of the previous weekend’s Premiership final.
“My best-case scenario is Newcastle v Sale,” said Lancaster, who could fly out minus a third of his squad if two finalists from Saracens, Leicester and Northampton are involved.
The good news is that England are
formulating a first-choice pack to make the rest of the world take note. Even outstanding forwards such as Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Keven Mealamu and Liam Messam could be seen clinging on for dear life, with try-scorer Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Billy Vunipola, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw enhancing their reputations. England may remain unsure what their best back line looks like but they have a much clearer idea up front.
If there is one individual, however, who characterises Lancaster’s England it is the fullback Mike Brown. He is outstanding and leaves others to fret over whether, with ball in hand, he is Israel Dagg. Few are and England should instead give him some wing men and an outside centre with proper jet shoes. Neither Chris Ashton nor Ben Foden looked remotely as dangerous as Julian Savea, whose two tries increased his tally in his last two encounters with England to four.
Even the loss of Dan Carter with a cruel calf strain on his 100th test appearance could not disrupt a side with the priceless ability to think their way out of trouble. Lancaster, for that reason, will be thrilled at Billy Twelvetrees’ recovery from a grim start against Australia, with the Gloucester centre an increasingly key figure. Lee Dickson also brought a certainty and tempo that will mean he retains the jersey until Ben Youngs or Danny Care supplies the same organisational calm.
The fact remains, nevertheless, that England were 14 points behind after 18 minutes, a deficit few sides would have overcome. An ability to cope with pressure is not, as yet, second nature. This was a meatloaf sort of autumn. Two out of three ain’t bad but England are aiming higher than that.