WATAIKO, NEW ZEALAND – England won respect during their June tour to New Zealand, but failed to win any of their three matches. Now, English players will have a layoff between June and August, preparing their bodies for the wear and tear of the final season before the World Cup. A tour to New Zealand is always a tricky proposition. Before the tour, if you had told England supporters that the team would put in two very strong showings, and one poor, you would have been hard put to find a realistic supporter who would have quibbled too much with the prospect. Stuart Lancaster and English supporters will come away from the tour with an inescapable set of conclusions about what England need to do (and keep doing) in order to become legitimate favorites for the 2015 Webb Ellis Trophy.
Robshaw a World Class Captain
Chris Robshaw has been dogged for the past two seasons by accusations that he lacked the size, pace, and temperament of a proper international openside flanker. It is difficult to believe that Warren Gatland truly felt that there were six better flanking options in the British Isles, but Robshaw’s exclusion from the British and Irish Lions touring party may have been good for his career. A rested Robshaw had a superb season, and one of the best tours of the England squad. The first match was probably his highlight, but the captaincy is undoubtedly his in the World Cup, barring a catastrophic injury.
Ashton’s International Career Should be Done
Chris Ashton rose from the dead with a fantastic second half to the season in both European and domestic competition with Saracens. However, his dreadful showing in the Third Test in Wataiko should have ended his international career for good. The winger was personally responsible for all three of Julian Savea’s tries, as he was repeatedly drawn out of position. The rugby league convert has always had a reputation for defensive frailty, but such lapses cannot, and should not, be forgiven by Stuart Lancaster and staff. The embarrassing swan dive into the try zone when England were sure to lose the Second Test was reflective of Ashton’s attitude towards the game as a whole; all flash, no substance.
Lancaster Has Built Depth
The First Test at Eden Park was supposed to be a joke, as England was forced by poor scheduling (largely their own doing) to send out a makeshift side. Instead, they stayed in the match until the final whistle, and played extremely well in one of international rugby’s most intimidating venues. Lancaster has been rightly praised in several quarters for rebuilding a broken national side (France could surely use a lesson or two right about now). His greater achievement may be building the depth that is necessary to truly compete for the World Cup. England now run legitimately two deep at most positions, with the alarming exception of the wings.
England Need a Finisher
It is unquestionable that the All Blacks were the better side in all three tests. They had the extra ten percent that saw them over the try line, whereas England came up short again and again. The chasm between the sides was most evident in the final test, where Julian Savea’s class savaged England. All told, the Kiwis and the English probably had the same number of scoring opportunities. England were inside their own twenty-two at least four times in the second half, but only came away with one try. The English are no longer short on grit, but for the moment, they are just a little bit short on the class that is needed to win a World Cup.
Results Needed from Autumn Tests
All of England’s progress will be for naught if they do not win their tests this autumn. It will be their final opportunity to face Southern Hemisphere opposition ahead of the World Cup, and the most realistic dress rehearsal for the tournament, which will be played on home soil. Twickenham does provide advantages to this English side, who seem to lift their game at the hallowed venue. Stuart Lancaster has, without a doubt, been a massively positive influence in the English camp. However, his choice of in-game substitutes is often questionable, and England’s tactical choices were sometimes naive this tour. He will need to step up as a game manager in the next year. Right now, England remain contenders for the title. Wins over Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa in November would turn them into something else entirely:. favorites.