This week, Red Rugby brings you the second in our ‘State of the Nation’ series, where we look at the main contenders for Rugby World Cup glory a year out from the main event. In the week that tickets went on general sale, Andy Mayes looks at how the hosts, England, are doing with less than twelve months to go.
England returned from their tour of New Zealand having lost the series three games to nil. A mere glance at that result tells a tale of humiliation and being thoroughly beaten. However scratch at the surface, dig deeper and you’ll find a narrative that tells a different story.
Before the tour of New Zealand began, you would have been hard pushed to find a English rugby fan who seriously thought that England would come close to matching the All Blacks (this blog certainly didn’t think they could do it). Reckless optimism is something that followers of English sport love to indulge in, but I’m struggling to think of anyone who genuinely thought that England would triumph (or even come close to it) against the Kiwis. However, if we look at in-depth analysis of the three match series, it shows that England put up a ‘jolly good fight™’ in the first two Tests. They were so close to snatching victory in the first outing and agonisingly lost the game to a seventy-eighth minute try, after an under strength side had put in a highly spirited performance. The second Test was lost by a single point after England had been in the lead at half-time. Despite losing the third Test quite heavily there were many reasons for the Twickenham set to be optimistic as Stuart Lancaster’s men returned to Blighty.
And there’s the rub…
The summer tour seemed to follow a trend in English rugby over the past year or so, which is either rather encouraging or intensely frustrating depending on how you look at it (a kind of glass half-full or half-empty split). Since the embarrassing implosion against Wales in the Cardiff pressure cooker in March 2013, England have been quietly making progress with the minimum of fuss. It culminated in a Six Nations earlier this year that was pleasing yet at the same time rather galling. If England could have held out for those last few, tournament-defining minutes in Paris (right at the start of the tournament) they would have been glugging the winner’s champagne. As it was, they lost the tournament on points difference. Close but no cigar. This pattern continued in New Zealand. Two games lost by a combined total of six points. Again, so near and yet so far.
England are knocking at the door of being a very good team: a team that could be a real force in international rugby. There have been flashes of brilliance and toughness, yet at other times an inability to close games out and convert promising moments and passages of play into something much more solid. This remains the challenge for England: to try to become the finished article. The progress made under Stuart Lancaster has been notable and glimpses of what England could be has created a tantalising hope amongst English rugby fans. England look to have a balanced side with some decent strength-in-depth, as was shown when a supposedly weakened side pushed the world champions so close in that first Test. Stuart Lancaster appears to be in charge of a settled and happy camp (unlike the group of four years ago). However, England do have issues to address. Game management and getting points on the board when you have the opposition on the back foot are two areas that continue to cause concern. These problems were highlighted and brutally exposed in the Six Nations, especially in that crucial match against France. If England can overcome these problems, they will be genuine contenders for next year’s showpiece event. That’s not just reckless optimism either. There are signs that England are on the verge of something very special.
Make no mistake though, despite having home advantage England will have to be at their very best to progress from a fiendishly difficult World Cup group that contains both (local rivals) Wales and (old adversaries) Australia. One thing is for certain, one of those three will be making an early exit from the competition. At present, England have us much chance of taking an early shower as the Welsh or Wallabies do…it’s that close. To avoid that fate, England have to build on the solid progress of the last twelve months and iron out their problems. The Autumn Internationals and the Six Nations offer another chance to assess England’s progress. We await them with bated breath and, from an English point of view, with a sense of hope and optimism that this promising and solid rate of development can be maintained…
…and peaks just in time for the Webb Ellis Cup to return to the Twickenham trophy cupboard.