What to make of England’s rugby tour to New Zealand this month?
In advance it was viewed both by the England coaching hierarchy and UK pundits as a chance to make a statement of intent as regards next year’s Rugby World Cup – who can forget the Martin Johnson team’s 13-15 victory at Wellington (at one stage with two forwards in the sin bin) in June 2003 that signalled to the world they were ready to win the Big One a few months later?
Though they had lost out narrowly in the 2014 Six Nations – a short period of madness in the French game saw to that – the feeling around the camp was that England were on the right path. The general view of the rugby scribes was that at least one victory in the three test series would confirm England as a serious RWC contender, especially with home advantage to come. That said, the car crash at Cardiff at the end of the previous (2013) season when seeking the Grand Slam had showed with bells on that there was still a long way to go. Taking the Triple Crown in 2014 was regarded a mere consolation prize in this context, not a stepping stone. Maybe England were on the right path in general terms, but they couldn’t yet close out victories when it really mattered.
The First Test ‘player non-availability’ issue was a farce, all the more so because the rugby authorities could (should) have seen it coming and circumvented it. As it turned out, however, the narrow 5 point loss at Eden Park – when a drubbing by between 20 and 40 points was anticipated by most observers including this one, given that to all intents and purposes England were fielding a 2nd XV – was a false dawn on two important fronts. It allowed England and UK pundits to ignore the fact that the All Blacks are traditionally ‘under-cooked’ at the beginning of their international seasons and instead wallow in the presumption that, if our second-string could lose as creditably as they undoubtedly had done, surely when our first-teamers returned a 2-1 series victory was still potentially on the cards.
In the event, the England wheels fell off. The first half of the Third Test at Hamilton (ending 29-6 to New Zealand) was one of the more abject England 40-minute displays of the last five years. This current England touring squad could remain in the Land of The Long White Cloud for further ten Tests without the slightest chance of achieving a victory. The Kiwis have now taken the freehold on the psychological edge between the teams. It is with no irony I add the thought that – for some England players – the Third Test may have been a good one to miss.
The idea that going down to New Zealand and being comprehensively beaten up is some form of character-building ‘rite of passage’ from which a range of plusses can be gained – not least identifying players who put their hands up when the metaphorical lead is flying – is Grade A hogwash.
Those pundits who, three months ago, suggested that the 2015 Rugby World Cup might just be too early for this youngish England squad’s best hope of tournament victory were probably on the money. To get them into a state in which winning the 2015 Final is a viable possibility may now be an uphill task beyond even Hercules.
This morning I am struggling to identify positives and/or those who advanced their international cause.
The truth is that, despite the squad’s self-belief and adrenalin-fuelled determination to acquit themselves well on the toughest tour a Northern Hemisphere country can undertake, many of the senior England squad members were already ‘out on their feet’ after another long and arduous season.
Mike Brown, Dylan Hartley, Joe Marler, Billy Vunipola – even Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell – were all under-par and in obvious need of a rest. Most telling in this respect was the dropping of young lock Joe Launchbury because of ‘exhaustion’ for the Third Test, only to have to re-instate him when Geoff Parling pulled his hamstring 48 hours before the game.
The debacle of the Third Test’s first 40 minutes may have done for Kyle Eastmond’s international career. Boxing is not the only sport in which the adage “A good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un” applies and – at five feet eight and 13 stone – the former rugby league convert was mercilessly undone by the All Blacks’ midfield.
The management withdrew him at half-time both for tactical reasons and to save him from further punishment.
In overall terms, we just weren’t good enough. We couldn’t gain parity at the breakdown and the Kiwi backs were just too powerful, slick and well-organised for ours.
With apologies to my National Rust colleague Derek Williams, I personally would drop Chris Robshaw, both as captain and player. If honest endeavour and hard work counted for anything, he’d be in any international team going. However, he is just too heavy and ponderous to play a lightning-quick, close-to-the-ground, fighting dog, which is what you need your 7 to be.
Call me radical if you wish, but I have a potential off-the-wall solution for England’s back-line.
Ben Youngs was the one player to enhance his reputation in the Third Test and he must now join Danny Care as our two best scrum halves through to 2015.
From now on I’d pick George Ford at 10, move Owen Farrell to 12 (inside centre) with Tuilagi at 13 (outside centre). On the wings, I’d go for Marland Yarde – provided he goes back to school and improves his defence between now and November – and [please don’t take me as having lost my marbles] Saracens’ David Strettle, who for my money was the best Premiership winger for the last four months of the 2013/2014 season.
Anyway, that’s for the future. Now for the beach. Even we pundits need to recharge our batteries …