South Africa 14 England 14: Lessons as tourists frustrate hosts
What lessons did we learn as England earn a 14-14 draw against South Africa in their final Test match, losing the series 2-0?
Lancaster has options in England squad
England drew their third and final test in South Africa to avoid a series whitewash and more importantly halt a losing streak of nine games that went back to 2006. There is still much to work on for Stuart Lancaster, but there were some real positives for the England boss to take home. Danny Care, who Lancaster coached at Leeds when the England scrum half was a youngster in the Leeds Academy, returned from international exile to show he is now focused on his battle for the number nine shirt with Ben Youngs and Lee Dickson. After a storming season in the Premiership, Care looked hungry from the outset and capped a fine display with an opportunistic dart over the line from a quick penalty five metres out. His passing was sharp and aside from being caught heavily once, his decision making was spot on. There is now real competition at scrum half as there is in the back row where James Haskell showed a break from English rugby has revitalised his game as he came in for captain Chris Robshaw, who cracked a thumb. His defence was immense and recalled Joe Worsley’s limitless desire to tackle everything that moves. But England are still failing to get big runners like Haskell carrying the ball with intent, but more on that later. Lancaster hailed Alex Goode’s debut as outstanding and the Saracens full back looked instantly at home in international rugby. The Springboks showered him with high balls but he took them all and looked dangerous on the few occasions he hit the line with ball in hand. England’s scrum was another success as they held their own against a side renowned for the strength and technique of their front five. Prop Joe Marler, in only his second test, looks ready to make the step up after some fine scrummaging and a great shift at the breakdown. The Quins loose-head is only 21, and joins an illustrious group of young English props led by Alex Corbisiero, 23, and Dan Cole, who already has 31 caps at just 25. Another newcomer who has emerged from the series with great credit is Exeter flanker Tom Johnson. He flew around the pitch causing havoc and has added to Lancaster’s selection issues going forward.
England midfield issues continue
Lancaster was right to point out England are planning for the future and had Under-21s at 10, 12 and 13 once Toby Flood was replaced by Owen Farrell, the other two being Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph. But while their potential is clear, it is in the midfield that England continue to struggle creatively. Flood started the game as England piled pressure on the Boks and were 3-0 up after two minutes. The tourists had learnt from last week’s slow start and Flood’s flat position close to the gain line looked promising. But Leicester’s number 10 was forced off with an injury and Farrell took his place. The 20-year-old is a reliable place kicker but he is still struggling to release his midfield. He is slowly coming round to receiving the ball flatter, but kicked away possession far too readily. England need to get the midfield firing and use their centres more effectively. Tuilagi gained good yards when he carried but he had no support so offloads were never an option. There seems little point having a flyer like Joseph outside him if England’s attacks solely comprise Tuilagi crashing down the inside channels. And if Joseph was getting little ball then wingers Chris Ashton and Ben Foden had less. Ashton came infield looking for the ball more out of frustration than planning but England have to find a way to fashion moves that end up with wingers receiving the ball at pace out wide. That seems unlikely while the kicking game persists and it was not just Farrell who punted the ball at every opportunity. England’s back three seemed reluctant to carry the ball back but on the rare occasions they did they looked dangerous, with a run by Foden standing out.
England can learn a lot from 2003 heroes
It can be argued it is pointless looking back to the glory days of 2003, but there remain a number of areas where England continue to fall down. Our young midfield are inexperienced and could deliver in years to come but what would England fans give to have Will Greenwood back in the centres. He may have lacked razor-sharp pace, but his footballing skills may never be replaced. Similarly the vintage of 2003 had ball carriers all over the pitch and we knew how to get the best out of them. This England team lacks the players to hit through the gain line, but just as worryingly, when we do go through the phases runners are almost invariably static when the receive the ball. South Africa flew onto the ball throughout the second test but it seems England are still unable to incorporate coming onto the pass with momentum and players like Haskell are not being utilised as much as they should. Admittedly Robshaw was missing, as were Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood for the whole tour, but this failure needs to be addressed. As does England’s indiscipline. It has been much worse but penalties were given away needlessly, often when England were under no real pressure. Stand-in skipper was the most culpable, blatantly lying on the ball and getting a yellow card. England played valiantly with 14 and stopped the Springboks scoring, but the pressure eventually told as the home side scored just after Hartley returned. England seem to lack the smartness of 2003 where Neil Back and Martin Johnson were constantly working on the fringes of the law. You will get caught out occasionally but the current crop lack savvy operators in the mould of Richie McCaw, David Pocock or Sam Warburton. But there is time to put all these things right as Lancaster aims squarely at 2015 rather than short-term goals. And as injured players return and competition heats up there is much to look forward to over the next three years.