As far as whitewashes go, England’s 3-0 defeat by New Zealand is probably one of the least one-sided series wins we’ve seen for a long time. In fact, one seasoned expert is more concerned about the state of the world champions than the tourists.
“Like a lot of my Kiwi friends, I’ve been impressed with England and am more concerned about the All Blacks,” says former New Zealand head coach John Mitchell, who was also once England number two.
“England are young and improving, whereas the All Blacks have an ageing Kevin Mealamu, a lack of cover for Tony Woodcock and concerns about Aaron Cruden’s form and consistency.”
Mitchell’s got a point you know. With little more than a year to go before they host the 2015 World Cup, here are 10 positives England can take from the tour of the “land of the long white cloud”.
1. It won’t ever be this hard again
Playing against the world champions and number one side in the world in their own back yard is bad enough. Doing so at the end of a long domestic and European season, with several of your key players featuring in the Aviva Premiership final just a week before, means it becomes almost impossible to prepare. This won’t be a problem ahead of the Rugby World Cup though, much to the relief of England head coach Stuart Lancaster.
2. Young, developing team
Other than 30-year-old Geoff Parling, England’s touring squad was entirely composed of players in their 20s. The players will get better, more experienced and more streetwise – and this tough tour will only cement that process. And, as in the run-up to the 2003 World Cup, England are developing a strong spine. Where Sir Clive Woodward had Jason Robinson, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil Vickery, so Lancaster has Mike Brown, Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, Chris Robshaw, Billy Vunipola (and Ben Morgan) and David Wilson in his key positions. That’s some core to build around.
3. Strength in depth
Several players emerged as contenders for the first XV in New Zealand. Rob Webber might have been unheralded coming into the tour, but could leapfrog Dylan Hartley as first-choice hooker. Geoff Parling was perhaps England’s star player in the first two Tests – and he didn’t play during this year’s RBS 6 Nations. Kieran Brookes, just 23, made a real impact coming on at tight-head for Wilson in the third Test. Ben Morgan had a storming tour, impressing particularly in the first Test, and will push Billy Vunipola for the number 8 jersey. And Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns were billed as the fourth and fifth-choice fly-halves coming into the tour, but each acquitted himself well and could push for a start in the autumn.
4. Danny Cipriani
Let’s talk a bit more about the Sale maestro, who showed he’s still one of English rugby’s most gifted players. Cipriani produced excellent cameos in the first and third Tests and gave a controlled, commanding performance as a starter in the midweek game against the Crusaders. At the very least, he’s capable of producing an impact off the bench with his creativity and distribution skills, and offers added variety with his left-footed kicking.
5. Forward power
Overall, England earned parity – and probably more – in the scrum and line-out during the three-match series. The rolling maul off the line-out proved one of their most potent weapons and is something we can expect to see a lot more of in future. And apart from the first 40 minutes of the third Test, England’s line-out was exemplary throughout.
6. Key players to come back
Back-rower Tom Croft, tight-head Dan Cole and loose-head Alex Corbisiero all missed the New Zealand tour through injury. Each is a world-class player on his day and will be back. Christian Wade, Jack Nowell and George Ford also missed out and we can expect them to push for starting places too.
7. Still time to put down a marker
When he was England coach, Sir Clive Woodward said it was crucial to go into the 2003 World Cup as favourites. He knew it would create a confidence and aura around his team – and he was right. Lancaster’s men might just have been whitewashed, but they still have the chance to gain revenge in the Autumn internationals (England play New Zealand on 8 November) and lay down a marker for the 2015 World Cup.
8. Home advantage
England have turned Twickenham into something of a fortress under Lancaster. They’ll be back home at HQ for the Autumn internationals and, of course, for the World Cup. England will also have the advantage being based at their true home from home, Pennyhill Park, for much of this and next year. Matt Parker, head of athletic performance at the RFU, has been busy ensuring that England make even more of this home advantage, bringing in genuine innovation for those extra one percenters like the construction of a multi-million pound, purpose-built 3G training pitch at Pennyhill Park.
9. Kyle Eastmond
It might seem strange to describe the Bath man as a positive after he was taken off at half-time in Hamilton. However, he had already proved his huge talent during the first Test in Auckland. Former England coach Brian Ashton told us Eastmond has “great footwork, reminiscent of Jason Robinson’s, and given an opportunity can open up any defence. He’s a game-breaker, a player with X-factor.” And everyone loves X-Factor.
10. The joker in the pack – Sam Burgess
The latest convert to union from league, the 25-year-old has precious little time to adapt ahead of the World Cup, but it might just be possible that he’s thrown in. There’s still uncertainty about where exactly the 25-year-old year old will play for Bath next season, with some even suggesting the back row. His great footwork, excellent handling, pace and exceptional power make it look like he could be the perfect fit for England’s problem position of inside centre, though. Watch this space.
Get behind-the-scenes news from England’s players on tour in New Zealand with Player Diary from O2 in partnership with England Rugby, at www.O2InsideLine.com