When you look back over the last fortnight , you can be forgiven for thinking that England was presiding over a sideshow at Twickenham.
The real action was surely in watching Ireland complete three famous back to back victories, which is some recovery from their own crippling World Cup exit. They have found some stars of the future and lips are already being licked for the Six Nations clash in Dublin against the Red Rose of England.These are the two sides suddenly showing world class form to match the All Blacks?
After England’s predictable win over SA who have quickly become whipping boys on the world stage, Fiji had arrived to celebrate their Olympic Sevens triumph and had hardly played 15 a side rugby since the World Cup. The RFU joined in and called it Olympic Day! Brilliant unpredictability is no longer a currency in today’s top rugby , or else represents a shooting star featuring briefly and then is gone.
Furthermore , the Argentinian team which turned up the following week was a pale imitation of the side which blasted Ireland out of the World Cup. I was at the Millennium stadium that day and they were sensational – since then, their players have been driven into the ground by the relentless schedules they have pursued. Even with 14 men, England won with ease and the atmosphere around the stadium reflected that expectation. We even tolerated the incessant hold ups in play for the TMO or for the front rows to gather face time on television. Boring oh so boring! But the level of confidence has risen so high on what this England team can achieve now.
This is the key word for me in the turnaround, beyond all the others. When the pressure was on in Australia during the summer, there seemed to be a sense of calm amidst the mayhem of frenetic tackling and taking constant pressure. We did not dare assume, but admired the new attitude and some of us suggested that Australia had blown the first two matches and handed them to England. Perhaps that is also what the Wallabies felt when losing to Ireland after a second half which made it look as if one side only was in contention. On this occasion Ireland had the confidence of two previous wins and came again so it was more their achievement than anything else.This is what’s happening to England now, and mirroring the Saracens on the club stage.
England’s three steps along the way this Autumn look something like this 1/ an almost relaxed atmosphere to stick 40 points on South Africa and greeted with a ‘job done’ mentality 2/ Evidence of real pace and quality in attack to take Fiji down, although still in second gear and conceding short range tries too easily 3/ An exercise in game management to shrug off a one man deficit against an Argentina team playing sevens and leaving their own game head in the Mid Atlantic somewhere. At no point have England gloated, but taken injuries in their stride and deepening the squad along the way.
Most importantly, purposeful ball skills from the forwards and an emergence at last of real potential in the midfield play – those who have read me over the years will know I haven’t always thought that!
In my mind, solid progress from a squad running a more different and recuperative campaign than any other team in World Rugby, given RWC 2015. Which brings me to this coming match against the Aussies, who last year inflicted the most humiliating defeat on any Home Nation in any World Cup. It was the manner as well as the quantum of the defeat which still rankles and hurts. There is a score to settle and the style will matter as well. While England will have huge motivation, it is a tough call, especially when all men in Gold shirts squirm from the embarrassment of a Home series whitewash and have their own revenge in mind.
It makes for a wonderful climax, and whatever the result England is still in credit. I wonder whether Eddie will be ok losing this match if he could swap it for a win in Dublin. Of course he wants both, but losing a big one is still a missing piece in this team’s development. My own England team did it big style in the Grand Slam attempt of 1990 against Scotland and then won two successive Grand Slams. England 2003 World Cup Winners blew at least three Grand Slam opportunities so were steeped in experience of falling just short.
A fascinating test awaits for two top teams.
Thought of the Week:
I have appealed many times to World Rugby to toughen up sanctions against head Tackles and upper body impacts. Great to see strong action now being taken by referees, who are acting consistently across the competitions. Latest example was Northampton and England player Kieran Brooke’s red card for a ruck clear out to an opponent’s head. Lets keep it going and such practice will cease – not a moment too late.