Neil’s Exclusive Assessment of England and their All Blacks Defeat
Having allowed a bit of time for the dust to settle after England’s loss to New Zealand at the weekend, Neil Back MBE shared his thoughts on the game and England’s progression. The World Cup is under a year away now and, although he acknowledges the team’s quality, Neil still sees England as a work in progress. This is what he told us.
“With the All Blacks having played 8 Tests in the past three months, anyone looking from the outside in would have expected New Zealand to have started Saturday’s game like a team well and truly in the groove but it was England who shot out of the blocks. Despite only a few days’ preparation before facing the world’s number one ranked side, Stuart Lancaster’s men were electric from the off and, for the first 15 minutes or so, played the best rugby I’ve seen from them since he took the reins.
“We made the best team on the planet look pretty ordinary during that opening period and showed incredible energy and a commitment to attacking play. There were some fantastic individual moments proving we have some very exciting players.
“Jonny May has promised a lot but had not quite shown enough of his undoubted skills in an England shirt until Saturday when he ripped through the All Black backline to score early on. It was the kind of try that, had it been scored by a New Zealander, would have been plastered all over the papers for days, pundits purring about its quality.
“That, of course, hasn’t happened but we must not overlook the quality of the players he left for dead. Conrad Smith is among the best centres around but it was like he just wasn’t there, and Jonny went past Israel Dagg, of all people, in a metre by the line as he raced for the corner.
“That’s the type of individual brilliance we’ll need next autumn and I hope May takes confidence from it. That said, the South Africans will have taken note and may deny him space this weekend. He’ll need to deal with that but tries like his give us reason for optimism.
“There were other opportunities that we were unable to take and maybe, if Mike Brown had caught that pass and gone on to score, Saturday’s game could have had a different complexion. To win tight games you need to take your chances!
“England showed real intent and real intensity from kick-off but, if that was a step forward, we then took two steps back. The All Blacks battened down the hatches and weathered the initial storm. By getting their hands on the ball they were able to take control of both possession and territory and that’s when the game turned.
“On his debut, Rokoduguni didn’t have a bad game at all but it was a baptism of fire for him. He got smashed twice early on but he will also have realised that the physicality that serves him so well in the Premiership cannot alone be relied upon at the very highest level – there has be a bit of defensive know-how thrown in. He showed little of the attacking flair that earned him the call-up and is now unfortunately injured, so he will have to wait for next opportunity to demonstrate what he learned on his first Test outing.
“The All Blacks on the other hand showed their experience and managed the game very well. It particularly impressed me when, down to 14 men in the second half, they didn’t give England a sniff and won that period 3-0. In contrast, England lost their way and relied too much on the pack driving mauls from deep, a strategy you won’t see New Zealand employ on a regular basis.
“There are clearly other tactical options and the opening exchanges, marked by quick English ball and expansive play, had shown the way forward but the boys will come away asking themselves questions about the decisions they made at the breakdowns. In the second half they were more often than not incorrect and that let New Zealand back in and we could conceivably have lost by 20 points. The coaching staff need to address that and the players will have to learn from the experience.
“South Africa give us another chance to test ourselves though. They’ll be hurting from their defeat to Ireland and I certainly wouldn’t have put a penny on the Irish winning by that big a margin. Uncharacteristically, the Springboks struggled in the scrum and in contact areas, complaining that the Irish played fast and loose with the rules. That’s the game, though - winning teams probe for the outer limits of legality and adapt to the officials’ interpretation on the day to maximise the possibilities.
“The South Africans are ranked second for a reason and, coming off a bad loss, England must expect them to show character. At the same time, we must show character of our own. It looks like being another close game and I fully expect it to turn on the question of who shows the right mentality.
“I’d like to think that we play Australia in our fourth QBE International by design. They are at roughly our level at the moment and by that time the boys will have played 3 straight games together and should be up and running. The Aussies are in our World Cup pool and, with game-time under our belts, we have an opportunity to send them a message and establish a psychological edge.
“We need to do the same with the Welsh in the Six Nations, assert our dominance over them before we face them in the World Cup. We want to win that pool, preferably winning every game and they are the two teams that stand in our way. We must hit the ground running.
“England will arrive at the World Cup as a relatively inexperienced squad and there is nothing we can do about that. However, I do believe we have a rich vein of talent at our disposal and that we are on the brink of a period with serious potential.
“England are one of five or six teams that can win the World Cup next year and, while the learning curve is steep, it’s not an impossible task at all. Happily, we’ve got games coming thick and fast at the minute and that helps learning and it builds experience. Is there time to close the gap on the very best? I think there might be but only if we sort out the tactical side and improve on the decisions we make at crucial moments.
“Against the All Blacks we really had them on the rack but they were able to wrestle back the initiative. Unless we want to remain the ‘nearly-men’ of international rugby we need to learn how to close out games.”
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