15 months out from the Rugby World Cup, a 3-0 series whitewash may seem like a dismal turn of results. But look at the manner of the defeats and there may not be cause for as much upset as initial impressions may suggest.
Firstly it was against the All Blacks and the World Champions, as we saw in the first half of the third Test, remain a significant cut above all other teams on the planet. The question is whether that can be turned around in the next year or so but we stand in reasonably good stead if you look at the points differences. 29 points separated the sides across the series (and only six after the first two Tests), whereas the points difference between the French and the Wallabies was twice that, just shy of 60 – though if we’re playing devil’s advocate the French were beyond woeful.
If we were French, and Philippe Saint-Andre in particular, we’d be rattling off a load of excuses as to why the Tour ultimately failed – overworked players, the season’s too long, this Chateauneuf vintage was a poor crop, this cheese isn’t smelly enough – but we prefer genuine reasons. What’s interesting is that what was supposed to be an opportunity for players to cement their position in the squad ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, and allow the coaching staff the opportunity to start pencilling in names, has actually thrown up more questions than answers.
Top of the ‘reason’ list – and why we ultimately lost the series – was the side’s lack of clinical finishing. (Top of the French list incidentally was that they looked like they simply couldn’t be bother to be there.) A sniff of an opportunity and the All Blacks were over the whitewash, whereas a knock-on here, a missed pass there and England were left flailing on a number of occasions.
Certainly some players will have significantly increased their stock across the series and if we’re talking about clinical finishing, Marland Yarde was a joy to watch with ball in hand. His run through none other than Richie McCaw for the opening try in the 2nd Test was a beautifully taken line, direct and powerful. A little work on his defence and he’ll be an exciting prospect come 2015. Pencil him in.
The pack too, generally, showed a huge amount of resilience, more than holding their own against the brawn of the likes of Brodie Retallick and a revitalised Jerome Kaino, who ably filled in for IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read. Geoff Parling showed no signs of a lengthy injury lay-off as the lineout ran like clockwork with him in command. Launchbury held his own despite looking a little tired after a long season, while Lawes was his usual presence both in defence and towering over the lineout. It’s a healthy conundrum to have the talent in that position.
A couple of wobbly lineout throws aside, Dylan Hartley had a good tour and, with Rob Webber nipping at his heels both in his lineout throwing and his work around the field, Tom Youngs will have to work hard to get back into the matchday squad. Ben Morgan also took his opportunity of Big Billy V being unavailable for the first Test well, showing a gritty determination to get the job done.
And Chris Robshaw, even when up against the great Richie McCaw, performed admirably, carrying relentlessly, tackling hard and epitomising the new ethos that Lancaster is trying to drill into his players.
Not all dismal then, but what about the unanswered questions?
Well, it’s evident most are in the backs. Danny Care, if fit, is the snappiest, liveliest option at scrum half, the one most likely to get the backline fizzing, but outside him it’s hard to pin down players that will 100% definitely start come September 18th 2015. Yarde we’ve spoken about. Brown is a likely candidate. “Tuilagi,” I hear you scream. Perhaps but, while there’s no doubt he’s a threat going forward, he has a tendency to burst out of the defensive line opening up holes and when facing a teams like the All Blacks … hot knife … butter … you get the picture.
OK let’s assume Tuilagi. Who’s his partner then? Burrell, with his similarly direct style of play? The variable Twelvetrees? Kyle Eastmond, who impressed in the first Test but was brought off at half time for a dismal performance in the final Test? In hindsight it was probably wrong for Lancaster to do that. If there was one person who deserved to come off, surely it was Chris Ashton? Anyone who cries off five tackles in a Test match doesn’t deserve to be on the pitch. We’d like to see Anthony Watson given a proper run out, especially after his performance in the mid week game against the Crusaders, but unfortunately Lancaster doesn’t seem to read this blog.
Like we said, lots of questions. Who do you think stood out on tour and who would be your centre partnership? Comment below of write us on Twitter: @TakeTheThree.