By Charlie Morgan
“Let’s all laugh at England. One win and they think they’re world-beaters.”
If you’ve managed to scan social media this week, the chances are that this sentiment – or something similar – has popped up. In the wake of a nerve-shredding 13-10 defeat of Ireland at Twickenham last Saturday, there has been a bit of criticism knocking around.
Rather than acknowledge an exceptional victory forged from dogged defence, a powerful pack and one razor-sharp piece of attacking opportunism, some punters have preferred to scoff at Stuart Lancaster’s set-up. Jibes about the scrum – undeniably dismantled by Cian Healy – and a couple of Billy Twelvetrees knock-ons were prominent.
Arrogance is a trait that others simply love to pin on rugby people from these shores, so the majority of acclaim for a fine performance was immediately earmarked as sensationalistic and overblown.
Wales Online were quick off the mark. One article entitled “Eleven pieces of English rugby hyperbole after Ireland win” ran on Monday and began by confronting Sir Clive Woodward’s column – an easy target. From there though, the piece descended into farce. “Resurgent England on the up” was held up as a ‘hyperbolic’ headline. Bizarre.
Lazy clichés surrounding English egotism are even odder when you consider Lancaster’s personality. Championing sheer hard work, the former schoolteacher has transformed the national side from a total shambles into a disciplined, proud outfit.
Ironically, one aspect of the current Six Nations that is helping England in that regard has been injuries. The absence of Manu Tuilagi, Geoff Parling, Christian Wade and Marland Yarde has seen Luther Burrell, Dave Attwood, Jonny May and Jack Nowell emerge – a quartet that will now take some shifting.
David Wilson and Henry Thomas now get exposure at tighthead, too. In terms of raw materials – speed and athleticism – Tom Croft is a freakish talent. Figuring out a way to fit in the loping Leicester Tiger when he returns from a knee construction is a welcome problem. Likewise with Alex Corbisiero.
No.8 is another area where a dark cloud has presented a silver lining. Any nation would be worse off for losing Billy Vunipola in light of two destructive displays in Paris and Edinburgh. With Ben Morgan firing and ready to anchor the scrum though, England are better placed than they were to face Wales a year ago.
A 30-3 humiliation in Cardiff was brought about largely by back-row imbalance – Tom Wood covering in the eight shirt and leaving England bereft of a burly carrier. Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric ran riot. Add Morgan into the equation and everything changes. On Sunday, the hosts will be devastated if they fail to clinch a Triple Crown for the first time since 2003.
It would be fitting if this team can draw a line through another record from that year – for the first time since the Woodward days, there is a feeling of sustainable quality about England, especially considering the verve with ball in hand that is finally complementing their tenacity.
In his customarily understated way, Lancaster this week accepted how important this current competition may be.
“Obviously you want as many of your big guns playing as possible,” he said. “The likes of Manu, Tom Croft, Marland Yarde and Alex Corbisiero aren’t around. But when we look back at this period in 18 months, we’ll actually be thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to blood other players and find out about them in big games.”
Clearly, there is no danger of complacency or delusion – whatever the stereotypes. Nobody will attempt to shirk responsibility or evade problems. Graham Rowntree’s solemn expression at full-time of the Ireland success (markedly juxtaposed with the jubilation of Lancaster and Andy Farrell) evidenced those scrum worries and a determination to put right a record of four losses against the head from nine put-ins.
The link between fly-half and midfield must also be sharpened. George Ford may have been trumpeted as a mini-Messiah, but Alex Goode comprehensively outplayed him on Friday evening at The Rec – and that after Saracens’ stand-in No 10 filled in for Charlie Hodgson with 30 seconds’ notice. At least Lancaster is savvy enough to know what an intelligent, classy footballer Goode is.
In short, England are in a very good place and the press are completely correct to offer measured compliments. It isn’t hyperbolic to be cautiously optimistic. Besides, public opinion won’t affect what goes on at Pennyhill Park anyway.
Wayne Smith, who helped mastermind the All Blacks’ 2011 World Cup win before building a dynasty with the Chiefs by recording back-to-back Super 15 titles, possesses one of the most astute rugby brains on the planet. He has been quietly impressed with England and, with his Kiwi hat on, is rather wary.
Wales are resurgent and avenging last season’s Millennium Stadium Slam-busting is essential. However, we won’t find out for sure whether England are potential world-beaters until this summer’s excruciatingly tough series in New Zealand. Until then, be assured that this buzz of excitement is neither based on one game nor the product of empty-headed arrogance. All of the praise has been earned.