By Neil Back
The last ten years have flown by. The World Cup anniversary celebrations in November will be great because, apart from parading the trophy in London, the 2003-winning squad haven’t been together in the same room since. When we get back together it’ll be like we’ve never been apart.
Rugby’s been a professional sport since 1995, and the game has moved on that much further now, with different training methods, game plans and an increased physicality and intensity.
England today have a lot of strength in depth. The U20s won the Junior World Cup for the first time and, with a number of players on the Lions tour and a few more rested, it was a good opportunity for youngsters to impress in Argentina. Winning those Tests was good, but we need to look at it in context. Argentina had rested players for the Rugby Championship and, on their return, South Africa put 73 points on them.
The balance in the back row is critical. The rest will have done Chris Robshaw good, but his place is now under threat. You need a seven who’s committed to the continuity of the team. He needs to be comfortable clearing the ball away from the breakdown with no hesitation, stand at first receiver and develop an offloading game to put powerful runners into space, and be the first in support. Robshaw could be that man, but the way he plays he’s caught between two stools.
Matt Kvesic is a true seven and behind him are Saxons Will Fraser and Luke Wallace. If I was to pick a team today, I’d have Kvesic at seven, with Ben Morgan at No 8. Tom Wood did a fantastic job in Argentina, and he’d start at six and lead my team. He’s like Richard Hill – quietly outstanding; he doesn’t crave the limelight and is consistently good. I’d always have Tom Croft in the squad, but he’s a player who could put in a Man of the Match performance off the bench.
Experience is key, and Stuart Lancaster has talked about guys having 40 to 50 caps by RWC 2015. But you also need players with X-factor, and if Wade, Yarde, Eastmond and Burns are given time and opportunity, they could fill that brief.
The Lions will have been a great learning experience for Owen Farrell. His defence istrong, as is his kicking game, but he needs to mix it up and at times stand flatter to threaten back-foot defences. He leans more towards a kick when it’s on to run. He’s also risen to the bait and lost his composure. He’s still a young man, but he needs to learn to take the smack on the head, wipe the blood off his chin and get on with the next job.
Lancaster has grounded the players and reconnected the team with the fans since the last World Cup. Rowntree, Farrell and Catt complete a good team; their next task is putting away Australia, Argentina and New Zealand.