After the spectacular near-misses of 2011 and 2013 when England fell at the final hurdle of their grand slam attempts, many of us have not unnaturally been a little sceptical about whether the ‘class of 2014′ is the real deal. Well, arch-sceptic that I have been, I am now a convert to the gathering belief that John Bull’s current XV look like a European superpower again and as a dark horse for World Cup glory next year. Admittedly, some of us raved about the merits of the Welsh twelve months ago, and now their hallowed bunch look considerably less potent. Therefore, any pronouncements about the dawning of a new golden era for English rugby are liable to produce the kiss of death.
Nevertheless this young man was quite bowled over by England’s impressive shift against the next-door neighbours. While the narrow, though far from convincing, triumph over Ireland was a step in the right direction as it demonstrated that this young team could overcome a more experienced outfit in a close contest, the win over the reigning champions was achieved with much to spare.
In fact, were it not for the formidable kicking boots of Leigh Halfpenny, then the hosts would have won by the proverbial cricket score.
There is much to enthuse about England’s efforts this spring afternoon. The team oozed confidence, clearly intent on not fluffing their lines and ‘choking’ as they abjectly did in Dublin in 2011 and in Cardiff in 2013. Stuart Lancaster spoke afterwards of how important it was that his fast-developing team played without fear. Indeed they did. Everybody wanted the ball. Everybody had their share of the ball. Everybody even made good use of the ball – an appraisal that couldn’t be ascribed to their misfiring opponents. Yes England are dead keen on playing expansive rugby and this is only achievable if they have the personnel to do so. It remains to be seen whether May and Nowell can emulate the Underwoods and become prolific finishers. The signs however are encouraging. England’s latest wing wizards are fleet-footed elusive runners, and in harness with the red-hot Mike Brown, England just might have assembled a special back division again. In addition, the expert kick from Twelvetrees to put Burrell in at the corner was further cause for optimism. England are so ‘good’ now that they can afford to leave Manu Tuilagi on the bench! He’s a pretty formidable game-changer to have up your sleeve if and when the hour of need arises.
Furthermore, Danny Care looks more enterprising than ever, and his nose for a gap or opportunity is right up there with such greats as Roy Laidlaw and vintage Mike Phillips, two players who have always had great awareness of gaps in the enemy’s defences. Finally, pride of place must be allocated to big Courtney Lawes whose handling skills and energy around the park supplement his defensive display. Not only is he becoming the complete lock forward, but he could easily pass the audition for an international number 8.
England are belatedly looking the part with ball in hand, and especially so from broken play, where the menacing Mike Brown absolutely excels at the counter-attack. This is a major leap forward for a team whose greatest asset remains the quality of their defence.
In three matches against the other home unions, England have conceded but one paltry try. The reaction of a livid Mike Brown when Rob Kearney stole in for a try was an indicator of how desperate England are to keep the opposition from scoring. What impressed me most about England’s rushed defence was that the dangerous Jamie Roberts virtually had to take man and ball. It was to England’s credit that they imitated Ireland and ensured that Jamie did not have much more than five yards of ‘lebensraum’ in order to build up a head of steam.
Aside from the astute Lancaster doing his homework really well, Chris Robshaw is leading by example. Chris rarely misses a tackle. He rarely gets penalised. He also rarely wastes possession.
Perhaps the greatest area of concern is remarkably the scrum, which could always have been relied upon in good times and bad. However, the return of Cole and/or Corbisiero will emphatically remedy that situation!
Are England peaking at just the right time for the forthcoming World Cup? Or, is the world shindig arriving a year too soon for this developing team? Or, is the ‘vintage of 2014′ another one-year wonder that fails to justify the hype and build upon the early promise? Will they get ‘found out’ in the next year or two? Time will tell. It always does!