England's loss to New Zealand will benefit them in the long run, says Stuart Barnes
By Stuart Barnes. Last Updated: 19/11/13 11:29am
Chris Robshaw disconsolate after losing to New Zealand
The immediate sense of disappointment at Twickenham was obvious (other than if you were an All Black or All Black fan).
England produced their finest performance of the autumn in coming back from a 17-3 deficit to take the lead mid-way through the second half. They also had the momentum and victory seemed again a possibility.
But a malfunctioning bench and a touch of class from New Zealand saw the world's finest team home after a heck of a scrap. Stuart Lancaster, his fellow members of management and all English supporters were obviously distraught to get so close before losing the lead and the game, with New Zealand, by full time, having something in hand.
"An impressive defeat leaves them with strong foundations but the heads closer to the ground than clouds."
Yet I wonder whether, long term this defeat may be better for the health of the team than last year's victory. England performed extremely well against Scotland and did a fine job against Ireland and the awful elements but thereafter the All Blacks win was relegated to a one-off performance. And with a win against New Zealand and a run of wins, it was regarded as pretty unpatriotic to see problems massing.
The win against a feeble France was second rate, the effort against Italy at Twickenham an uninspired shambles but four straight wins and the scalp of New Zealand? Nobody wanted to hear. What happened against Wales was the culmination of a season of falling standards.
Had England won on Saturday there would have been a temptation for a management that can take the virtue of loyalty to the vice of blind faith to stick with a team that beat the All Blacks.
That would be a massive mistake. The game was a one off and England should be asking why they raised their performance levels so high compared to the previous two fixtures where two good halves were countered by two bad ones?
New Zealand twitch at Twickenham and England raise their game at home to New Zealand. The two factors can paint a picture rosier than it should be. Defeat enables England to search for the extra element to their powerful game which they didn't seem capable of looking for last campaign.
The pack is plenty good enough to live with most teams and the growth of Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury as a partnership together with Dylan Hartley's excellence and Billy Vunipola's strong performances suggests few packs will prevail at Twickenham.
But what if they do? That has been the question through the ages for England that has only been consistently answered by Clive Woodward's World Cup winning squad. While Brian Ashton orchestrated the attack game England developed a team capable of beating any team, any possible way. That is not the case at present.
What if a potent Welsh pack takes the game to England at Twickenham and what if the French pack wakes up in Paris? Will the English offensive game save them? Not a chance because outside the fringes of set piece and breakdown there is no attacking game to speak of. Where evasion and creativity are sought England's reply is to run into brick walls.
That is not to say England changes the essence of its game and moves away from the dynamism of the pack. But packs have their off days and the back line has to be able to earn its corn with the ball in hand as well as defending.
A win would have had English ears blocked. We would have been counting the days off until the World Cup. An impressive defeat leaves them with strong foundations but the heads closer to the ground than clouds.
The midfield is a mess and Owen Farrell, for all his temperament is at the heart of the problem. He is the man that Lancaster has decided will drive England towards the World Cup. He is also the bloke who kicked 17 points against New Zealand again. He has much going for him but defeat is a reminder how much he still has to work on.
The centre partnerships have struggled for years but with the rare exception of Charlie Hodgson few English fly halves bring the positive attacking philosophy to the game we see from Dan Carter.
Farrell is a grafter and will not stop working to improve his game. But right now he hasn't quite got the balance of his positioning and timing of a pass. Defeat reminds England that improvement in this aspect makes the team even more formidable.
Lancaster has almost an obligation to look at a new outside centre. Joel Tomkins has had three cracks at it and even taking Farrell's role into account insufficient plusses arise.
Henry Trinder is an obvious option while Luther Burrell should see a start in the Six Nations, maybe even as a 12. It is not a case of dropping players but finding the best team with a few changes here and there. It is much easier to make changes and experiment after defeat.
England, with home advantage, is in a decent position to build towards a serious World Cup challenge but only if they accept some serious weaknesses to currently exist. Their pool grows more interesting by the game.
Wales were by no means bad against South Africa and they hammered Argentina on Saturday. They may have a problem with the Southern Hemisphere trio but they do not fear England. Australia, the other force in this pool has bounced back from Twickenham with half a century in Italy and a substantial win in Dublin.
They retain superb skills but the intensity of the best teams can swamp that skill. If they find an edge to their pack as England seek an edge to their backs and Wales turn up without injuries and a balance of backs and forwards we have the most exciting World Cup pool of them all.
South Africa also has its eye on 2015. It looks ominous. Poor Scotland was overpowered by a Springbok team with the capacity to score catch and drive tries at will before unleashing brilliant young talents like Willie Le Roux into the broken field game.
His work for JP Pietersen's try was pure genius. For all the talk from England's camp about being the world's second best team by the end of 2013, the truth is South Africa is well clear of them. They are the most improved team in the world.
If England is to win the World Cup it has to catch them, beat Wales and Australia and maybe (but who knows?) a French team that collectively matches its individual talent before considering New Zealand.
There is a long way to go. In the wake of defeat, constructive criticism and a demand that England perform to high standards against lower rated opponents is more helpful to England than lowered aspirations and the memory of a one off performance.
Stuart answers your emails...
Got a question for Stuart? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the feedback form below...
Stuart, My real concern is that we lack as you quite rightly say creativity and attacking threat in our back line. Everyone talks about the centre problems but you could have Conrad Smith and Wesley Fofana in there and still have a problems when you are playing a fly-half with no vision. We know what Farrell can do but he's not going to take us to a world cup final - why has Lancaster not tried someone else out - Burns and Ford have so much more to offer than Farrell.
STUART REPLIES: Brendan, he might just get to a final. Twickenham is a significant advantage for England and Farrell can play a certain game well but it will be a limited game and it will rely 100% on the pack and it will possibly not maximise the team's full potential, whatever that might be. As for why not Burns and Ford. Both read the game better but neither defend nor tackle with the excellence of Farrell and maybe right now England, for all their talk find it easier to be big and physical, than big, physical and skillful to boot. I think Farrell is just about inked in as WC fly half and England has decided to give him as much playing time as possible, right or wrong.
Hi Stuart, I think England were very good - obviously being beaten so narrowly by NZ is no disgrace. They have made some progress, but there were some areas (and players) that are not good enough. Our wingers time and again are too easily suckered in so it leaves the outside clear for the opposition and the in-field kicking was not up to Test standard and did not give much chance for a successful chase. There must be changes in personnel on the wings, at least, with Tom Young's place in serious question - unless he can quickly sort out his line-out throws. Twelvetrees could perhaps be persevered with but the centre also remains a major problem . Which players do you think Stuart Lancaster has to bring in for the 6 Nations squad bearing in mind how he seems to bend over backwards to be loyal to his squad and gives some players numerous chances?
STUART REPLIES: Roger, the midfield is a mess but I like Ben Foden and would persevere with him. The kicking game was not poor it was just ambitious. It was designed for distance not regaining ball. It is part of a strategy that is effective to a certain level and might just claim a scalp here and there but it is not the essence of a world number one team. I would love to see George Ford and Anthony Watson given some Six Nations time. Henry Trinder and Luther Burrell simply must be given opportunities to improve on a midfield where nobody distinguished themself in a creative sense.
The game was lost when Hartley left the field. The next lineout England were in a good field position and Tom Youngs missed his man which put NZ on the front foot and England under pressure, he then missed the next lineout when England were defending and NZ subsequently scored. Youngs may be OK in the loose, not as good as Hartley, but he is poor at the set pieces and if you don't do the basics right then you will never win. Youngs was fast tracked into the England squad, a decision which has backfired, he should get a couple of seasons under his belt at Leicester before he is considered again. Brooker and Paice are both better and should be given a chance.
Stuart, do you think that something needs to be done about the state of the pitches at some of these stadiums? The Millennium Stadium and Murrayfield were shocking and cannot seem to cope with the rigours of international rugby especially at scrum-time. Murrayfield looked like an accident waiting to happen. Surely something needs to be done asap to get the facilities up to scratch?
STUART REPLIES: Michael, yes it does. Three stadiums have been a disgrace, unfit for Test match sport. Over to the grounds men of the world and the men with the purse strings.
Stuart, is it back to the drawing board for Scotland after that drubbing from South Africa? What do you think can be done to galvanise the Scottish team into a unit and eliminate the errors that were stopping any attacks.
STUART REPLIES: Karl, things might not be as bad as you think. South Africa are much better than any team in the Six Nations. Your team is not aimed to win World Cup but Six Nations matches and I wouldn't dismiss your boys quite yet. Back at their level things might not appear so forlorn.