While the side was unable to close out the victory, England’s display against the All Blacks in the last of the QBE Internationals proved they can cut it with the best in the world.
England are the only side to have beaten the All Blacks since they were crowned World Champions in October 2011 and came close to repeating that epic performance. The difference was ultimately how clinical New Zealand are at finishing their chances but England will take a lot of positives from the game.
Top of the list of positive signs is the increased physicality across the squad. England were out-muscled by Wales at the end of the 6 Nations but stepped this up in the last few weeks. The emergence of several players as dynamic ball-carriers is hugely encouraging, particularly Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes as more than thuggish bruisers.
Both have matured into far more rounded players, Hartley’s tendency to find himself on the wrong side of disciplinary proceedings seemingly a distant memory and Lawes being slightly more selective in choosing his moments to fly head first at anything that moves. Both have more control to their game this season and their combination in the lineout on Saturday was without fault. The loss of Hartley through a (painful sounding) bruised lung was huge as England, though Tom Youngs’ errant throwing, were unable to claim their lineouts for much of the second half.
Lawes’ second partner Joe Launchbury, though only 22 and one year into his full England career, once again proved he can muscle it out with the world’s best and frequently provided an extra ball-carrying option and target at the lineout. Billy Vunipola too has taken to the International rugby scene like a duck to water. A little refinement and he’ll be one of England’s most potent weapons. In fact the makeup of the whole back row is an exciting prospect with Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood consistently providing an astonishing work rate between them.
The strength in depth in the front row is also promising, with Joe Marler’s work at the scrum significantly improved providing strong alternative to Alex Corbisiero and Make Vunipola. With David Wilson also pushing Dan Cole hard for his tighthead prop berth, England are blessed with a number of options.
In the backs, certain elements were hugely exciting. Mike Brown was everywhere and his composed aerial game practically infallible. He single-handedly inspired the comeback against Australia with a slicing counter-attack, gathered every kick sent his way, showed an uncanny ability to beat the first man and was unrelenting in defence.
Other elements were not quite so impressive. Joel Tomkins failed to make a mark at International level, staggeringly failed to make a single pass against New Zealand and got caught out of position defensively too often. He posed no threat to the New Zealand backline, whereas should Manu Tuilagi be fit for the 6 Nations, he will walk back into the 13 jersey and provide a far more dangerous attacking option. Alongside him Billy Twelvetrees started the Series slowly but came into his own in the Argentina and New Zealand games as an alternative distributor outside Owen Farrell and a powerful runner off him.
Farrell himself (Australia aside) was his usually cool-self from the kicking tee, with an immaculate display against New Zealand, though his kicking from hand can be unreliable and he lacks creativity in open play.
Chris Ashton was also far below his best, showing a similar tendency to race out of the defensive line (and being left embarrassingly flailing at Israel Folau in one instance), whilst not having the same attacking threat he once did. Playing out of position on the other wing, Ben Foden failed to mark a mark.
In short we need a centre and some wingers. Henry Trinder has the footwork to challenge defences and Marlande Yarde and Christian Wade the pace but all of them need game time. Mr Lancaster, can you give it to them please?!