It’s December 1997 and England lead New Zealand 23-9 at half-time at Twickenham. But all is not well in the England camp. John Mitchell, who was part of Sir Clive Woodward’s England coaching team back then, explains:
“I’ll always remember that changing room. England were winning 23-9, but the forwards were blowing out of both ends.
“I’d never seen players so red in the face – [England prop] Jason Leonard literally couldn’t talk. We ended up drawing 26-26 and it showed us how much we needed to improve to beat the best.”
That was the start of a learning curve that culminated in the World Cup victory in 2003.
After two narrow defeats in New Zealand, we asked Mitchell – who has also coached the All Blacks – for his five key areas where England can improve in order to challenge at next year’s World Cup:
1. Clinical finishing
With England were 10-3 up in the first half in Dunedin, Manu Tuilagi made a searing 75-yard break.
With the line beckoning, he tried to go outside full-back Ben Smith, but was tackled and the chance was gone.
“Had one of New Zealand’s players made that break, they would have scored,” Mitchell argues. “The fact England didn’t is down to the lack of support runners more than a lack of pace from Tuilagi.
“I don’t think support play over the advantage line comes naturally to English players, whereas it does to New Zealanders or Australians – it’s something they learn from an early age.
“But it is an area where England can continue to develop and improve.”
2. Midfield balance
England had a new-look midfield in Dunedin. Gone were Freddie Burns and Kyle Eastmond, with Manu Tuilagi moved to the wing.
In came Owen Farrell, Billy Twelvetrees and Luther Burrell but Mitchell isn’t sure the changes worked as well as expected.
“Farrell is not a natural, attacking footballer and has a tendency to drift across the line in attack,” says Mitchell.
“I enjoyed the England midfield for that first Test. Burns was calm and composed and played flatter than Farrell does.
“Then you had Tuilagi’s dynamism and ability to tie up to defenders and Eastmond’s footwork and offloading. There was an extra dimension.”
England now boast a wealth of options in midfield – they just need to find the right combination.
3. Add to their attacking arsenal
England have been criticised for trying to play fast and loose in Dunedin – effectively trying to ‘out-All Black’ the All Blacks.
But Mitchell says it’s important to broaden your horizons in the run-up to a World Cup.
“I commend England for trying to add greater variety to their attacking game,” he says. “There will be a natural tightening-up closer to the World Cup. They will start to focus more on their traditional strengths of forward play and set piece and that mindset will be easy to get back.
“The same process occurred with England in 2003.”
4. Tighten the kicking
England’s kicking in Dunedin wasn’t quite on the money – not wise when you’re facing an electric back three of Ben Smith, Cory Jane and Julian Savea.
“If you are going to give New Zealand free ball to catch, then they will thrive, and we saw that,” says Mitchell.
“You need to make sure the kicks are contested and are going into difficult areas and you have to make them work harder.”
5. Play to your strengths
England’s ambitious style of play has brought them plenty of plaudits, but Mitchell has detected a vulnerability in the All Blacks which could be exploited.
“Ireland used the driving maul, particularly off the line out, to huge effect against the All Blacks last November,” he remembers. “They took the energy and legs out of the New Zealand pack – they made them work.
“We saw England do it at times in the first Test – and it worked – but they didn’t do it enough in Dunedin.”
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