16 Nov 2013

All Blacks offer real test of England’s World Cup hopes

England face New Zealand this weekend in what is the crunch match of the autumn rugby union international series. What pointers does the game offer to England’s chances of World Cup glory in 2015?

England captain Chris Robshaw and New Zealand captain Richie McCaw (Reuters)

Two tests down, one to go. Now that England have won both, we can see the matches against Australia and Argentina as stepping stones towards this Saturday’s progress-defining encounter against the All Blacks, writes Juan Ruiz.

If England win, will it make them the world’s second-ranked side, one capable of challenging for the World Cup in 2015? If they lose, does it mean they remain a side in transition, still rebuilding 10 years after lifting the Rugby World Cup in Sydney?

In 2001, two years out from that final in Australia, the England team included some familiar names: Martin Johnson, Johnny Wilkinson, Matt Dawson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Neil Back and Jason Robinson.

At least five of England’s 2001 side would have been included in a world XV selection in that year.

Of those, at least five would have been included in a world XV selection in that year. As a unit, England’s back row was probably the finest on the planet. In the pack, they had in Martin Johnson a captain and leader who demanded focus and aggression from his forwards for the full 80 minutes.

Outside the scrum, Johnny Wilkinson could be relied on to keep the scoreboard ticking over, ensuring the team was always in contention and the opposition under pressure. And in Jason Robinson England had a performer, whether at full back or wing, who could in the blink of an eye make a line break to set up a try or create space for others to score.

Just as important was Will Greenwood. Not the showiest or most extravagant of centres, he could give a pass to perfection, committing the cover defence, and then produce a timed delivery of the ball, freeing the wide men or his fellow centre.

Pride in the jersey

So how many of the current England side would appear in a world XV? Even without the injuries to Manu Tuilagi, Brad Barritt, Alex Corbisiero and Geoff Parling, would anyone oust a South African or New Zealander from a world team? Who would argue with the selection of Richie McCaw (pictured above right), Kieran Read, Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter and Conrad Smith?

I am not saying that England head coach Stuart Lancaster has not done a magnificent job. He dragged England back from the abyss in 2010 by installing discipline and pride in the jersey, both of which appeared to have been lacking in previous years.

As the England team stands, it does not have a settled spine. Is Farrell the real deal at fly half? Who is our first-pick scrum half?

He has also added a consistency to the selection process and, by and large, picked players on the basis of form, not reputation. In Mike Brown, he has found a full back who can compete with the best and who, given support, can be a thrilling runner. In the second row, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury have brought a youthful exuberance and abrasiveness to the pack, while Alex Corbisiero is maturing into a world-class performer.

But as the team stands, it does not have a settled spine. Is Owen Farrell the real deal at fly half? Who is our first-pick scrum half: Ben Youngs or Lee Dickson? Morgan or Vuinipola at number eight? Who will replace Ashton on the wing? Even with the two injured centres back in contention, is there a playmaker in the mix who is worthy of cleaning Greenwoods boots, someone who can release Mike Brown and Marland Yarde? If not, where will the tries come from against the top nations?

Raising their game

So to Saturday and what will be tense battle, with both sets of forwards looking to impose themselves in the loose and at set pieces.

At the breakdown, Tom Wood and Chris Robshaw (pictured above left) have shown they are both good scrappers, but will have to raise their game against the formidable Kiwi back row. Morgan and Vuinipola have been good going forward but will have to apply themselves to doing the ugly stuff as well.

Englnd are not a team of world-beaters at the moment, but they can give a good account of themselves against any side.

Where the contest looks completely one-sided is in the backs. So far this autumn, I have seen nothing to be encouraged by in England’s back play – and that was against less talented opposition than this weekend’s. There has been no fluency in their passing. Farrell and Billy Twelvetrees, the supposed playmaker, have both looked awkward in possession, with little apparent idea of timing and distribution.

The only time there was any real prospect of the opposition’s line being breached was in broken play, when Mike Brown had the ball. He seems to be the only back who can pick a running line and show a change in pace.

Lancaster has been unlucky of late with injuries to key players. You can see a reason for his selection decisions, and given time, I am sure he will get the most out of the players at his disposal. England are not a team of world-beaters at the moment, but they can give a good account of themselves against any side in the world. Whether that will be good enough on Saturday, I am not sure.

But this is not just about Saturday. It is about the next two years. Lancaster needs to find a strong, first-pick spine around which he can throw in the odd curved-ball selection to add a spark of genius. New Zealand are already at that point, as are South Africa. We have some catching-up to do over the next 24 months.