Stuart Barnes: England must improve if they are to beat New Zealand
England's inaccuracy in the backs is a huge concern ahead of New Zealand clash, says Stuart Barnes.
Last Updated: 16/11/13 3:48pm
The All Blacks were rattled by the French intensity at the breakdown while England attacked with depth and fluency through the central channels of the field.
Like I say, for any England supporter looking to boost hopes of a consecutive win against New Zealand watching the first half of both games is encouraging viewing - but whatever you do, switch off your screen before the respective second halves.
New Zealand were still light years off their tremendous performance in Johannesburg but the quality of their counter attacking and the precision of their finishing was impressive. England - in the starkest contrast - were appalling.
They tried to develop their game from the strong foundations of a 24-6 lead over a less than vintage Pumas team. But the more the backs became involved the worse England played.
Bar broken field play against New Zealand last December and a well-structured performance in the first Six Nations game of the season at home to Scotland the backline has failed to function time after time. (The Argentina tour was against such weak opposition that these games should be dismissed as serious tests.)
The basic skills of the backs are atrocious. From Owen Farrell out the running lines are lateral, the passing is lazily inaccurate and the ability to hold their depth when executing a move close to non-existent.
A sequence of victories against average teams has sympathetic supporters and journalists pointing to the long list of Ws. But the key indicator for the improvement needed to become a force at the next World Cup is missing.
The big P, performance, is hardly moving on the improvement graph. Certainly the creativity of the team is nothing more than empty rhetoric.
If there was any real benefit to come from a second half that was worse than the first half was good - and it was very good in terms of the dynamism of the pack - then it is that England will shelve any thought of taking on New Zealand at 15-man rugby.
A strong set-piece (Alex Corbisiero made an immediate impression in the scrum) and a lineout that provides a platform for forwards running hard from depths around the fringes where France found a few defensive frailties Saturday night has to be the order of the day.
New Zealand will be all the more dangerous for the result 12 months ago and the relative mediocrity of their effort in France. It is hard to see a repeat result but the All Blacks are all mortals and the mightiest can always be brought crashing down. It is unlikely but not impossible.
What is worrying beyond Saturday's events is the paucity of invention. The management are doing well in areas where heart and soul and statistical analysis help evaluate the effort of the team. Defence, fitness, the team ethos, all in good order but that's the case with New Zealand, South Africa and Wales.
So where is the extra edge? Where is the creative tension within the camp? Which players are questioning the management and telling them to think afresh. England has a disciplined and decent set of people involved in the team.
Are they too nice? The team has spent two years spluttering around behind the scrum, struggling to formulate an attacking vision. Something is clearly not working but someone has to have the courage to point it out.
The way the players stuck with a game plan that was so inappropriate for an entire half should worry not just fans of England but the management.
Worries too for Wales who were beaten in Cardiff by South Africa; three tries to nil tells a tale of precision against passion. England has set a target of becoming the second ranked team in the world by the end of the year.
Looking at Cardiff and Twickenham you realise that the rating system is good for a chat over a beer but little more. The best two sides in the world are New Zealand and South Africa. Maybe one of them will slip at the end of the year but the quality of these teams puts them clear of the field.
Wales looked decent but didn't look like beating South Africa. The so called Lions boost did not give them the edge to beat a country they have only beaten once in their history. The Springboks are way behind the All Blacks but building a fascinating squad of young and old. Under Heyneke Meyer they are gathering force towards 2015.
Elsewhere, although Samoa were rather not at fullest strength a 40-point win for Ireland was a decent start to the international career of the most creative coach currently working in this hemisphere.
It will not be plain sailing for Joe Schmidt but he has the capacity to give Ireland the sort of original attacking play that is fast becoming little more than a daydream for England's fans.
Australia's 50-point pasting of Italy could be seen as another encouraging form line for England. It was certainly an important win for a Wallaby side under fierce fire from critics back in Australia. Defeat in Italy could have caused huge harm to the struggling union code. It is a setback for Italy but the sport needs a strong Wallaby team.
It is a cracking New Zealand one. England is the only team to have beaten them since the World Cup. It has experience, intellect and edge. It has knowledge of how to win and how to play the game. They are arguably one of sport's great teams.
England, with gaping holes in their game is far from that but they have a powerful pack, a home crowd and knowledge of beating New Zealand. Miracles don't exist but gigantic shocks do. Twickenham's biggest game of 2013 beckons; it is an opportunity to see a great team and an opportunity to see whether the events of 12 months ago were nothing but a fluke.
It's not suicidal free flowing rugby England are looking for but strong set-pieces, a dynamic driving game and the ability of the players to think on their feet.
They might manage all three and still lose but if they do, I for one will be content whatever the result. Winning alone is not the answer to quite a few niggling questions.
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Hi Stuart. Injuries aside do you think a potential partnership for 2015 could be Eastmond and Tuilagi? Eastmond played well in Argentina before injuring himself for Bath early this season. I think the quick footwork, step and soft hands of Eastmond would balance brilliantly with Tuilagi's less subtle but extremely effective skill set.
Thanks Bob Simmons
STUART REPLIES: Bob, I don't think we have seen enough of Eastmond at a high level to judge yet. He remains too peripheral in Bath colours and the Argentina tour was against sub standard opposition. I am still not sure what his best position is. More importantly I am not sure his coaches do either. I am pretty sure that for all his limitations Manu Tuilagi is crucial as a guaranteed game breaker at 13. Give him the Ma'a Nonu book of self improvement and he will be world class by 2015.
Stuart, I still have reservations over Owen Farrell at fly half for England. While he did some good things against Argentina, the timing of his passing was largely poor and partly responsible for a disjointed midfield. What are your thoughts?
STUART REPLIES: Alex, Me too. Great temperament but technically and tactically questionable. He has been a central part in too many awful English midfield efforts (attack, not defence, which is exceptional) to have anything other than reservations as a creative, controlling ten.
Is there any chance Stuart Lancaster will throw in Christian Wade against New Zealand? Or could Marland Yarde start on the right wing after another disappointing showing from Ashton?
Thanks Phil Willis
STUART REPLIES: Phil, There's a chance. Ashton didn't convince again and as Wade would have played if fit last week logic says he has to be close. A game against Argentina to get the feel of Twickenham would have been ideal but maybe Ashton 's travails could see his name there at 14. As for Yarde, I think he looked raw against Australia and I would like to see Ben Foden remaining in the team.
Hi Stuart, why do you think Wales' run against the southern hemisphere - Lions involvement apart - is so dire? Surely we have the players to beat the top teams. Is it a mental problem?
STUART REPLIES: Dan, You don't have the players to beat the best two and unfortunately the self belief has never been a Welsh strength against the Southern Hemisphere. Wales remind me of England twenty years ago. Too powerful for the rest of Europe but too limited in game plan to beat the Australians and Kiwis (Boks were in exile at the time). I thought Wales played some good stuff in a tremendous first half without looking like winning (although, I confess that knowing the result as I watched helps a man to think so boldly. That Wallaby game grows ever more important.