England went unbeaten during their Autumn Series and now have fourteen consecutive wins but there's still room to improve, which bodes well for the future
By Alex Shaw
What a difference a year makes.
After bowing ignominiously out of their own Rugby World Cup at the pool stage in 2015, England have embarked on a 14-match winning streak – equalling the national record set by Martin Johnson and his side in 2003 – and become only the second side in the professional era to see out a calendar year with a 100% record.
The road wasn’t without its bumps over the last month and we take stock of the positives and negatives to come out of England’s autumnal campaign that saw them record victories over South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia at Twickenham.
Belief, leadership and growing experience
The mental part of the game plays such a significant role in the outcome of matches and it’s here, above all other areas, that England have developed the most over the past year and this has been particularly evident in their last four matches.
The 10-year hoodoo at the hands of South Africa was driven into the turf, an inferior opposition in Fiji was not underestimated and a previously undiscovered level of resilience was found against Argentina. Against Australia, Eddie Jones’ men found that most valuable of commodities, the ability to beat good opposition when performing significantly below their best.
Players such as Mike Brown, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell and Chris Robshaw underlined their importance as leaders within this team during the series, whilst players previously considered to be quieter, follow-the-leader types, such as Jonathan Joseph and Courtney Lawes found their voice with their decision-making and control of the game.
Making the leap
A lot has been made of ‘world class’ players since Jones took over the England head coach position.
The Australian had previously been critical about the lack of world class players at England’s disposal and more recently said that Jonny Wilkinson was the last player of that calibre to don the Red Rose.
One of the biggest stories of Jones’ tenure has been the development of the players in his squad and more than once he has suggested that several of his charges are knocking on that world class door.
Well, two or three may have made that leap over the past four weeks.
Farrell has led England with aplomb from his spot at inside centre, combining his ever-improving attacking gameplay with a defensive edge that has always been present. His decision-making as a defender has improved this year, as has his ability to effectively communicate and organise those around him.
Likewise, Billy Vunipola has taken his game to another level over the last few months and even with Nathan Hughes‘ addition to the squad, it was noticeable just how keenly Vunipola’s absence was felt by England during their game with Australia.
Both Farrell and Vunipola have made the leap and it would be harder, not to mention preposterous, to make a case for them not being considered among the very best in the world now, than it would to be put forward one which has them among that elite.
Elsewhere, the superb series turned in by Joseph, Robshaw, Lawes and Youngs all put them in the mix for similar accolades.
Defensive struggles persist
Lapses in defence against South Africa and Fiji cost England on the scoreboard – if not the match – and were not the clear steps forward in that area that England had been hoping for after their whitewash of Australia in the summer.
The trend was bucked against Argentina, when England turned in a thoroughly impressive defensive performance with 14 men, but they looked passive a week later when they took on the Wallabies.
Australia caused England all sorts of problems in the first half of that match and were it not for their excellent try-line stands – a clear exception to their defensive issues – the match may have been put beyond them in the opening 30 minutes.
Just as it is at Paul Gustard’s former club, Saracens, protecting your line is a remarkably well-drilled facet of this England side but where they don’t match up is with the consistency of their line speed, aggression and blitz.
Against Argentina, an under-manned England side put pressure on the Pumas relentlessly, restricted the width the South Americans could play with and tied them into playing an arm wrestle in the centre of the pitch. Against Australia, they allowed the Wallabies to get wide, drifting out with the ball, rather than putting pressure on playmakers Bernard Foley and Reece Hodge.
Building defensive structures and the trust within a squad that each player can deal with their own assignments is not an easy or overnight job and whilst there have been signs of development in this area, it’s still very much a work-in-progress for England.
England have ranged from below average to above average at the scrum over the last month – much as they have done for most of 2016 – and they are still some way off being the dominant unit they want to be.
With Mako Vunipola usurping Joe Marler in the pecking order, England are not as set-piece-centric as they were in the Six Nations and combined with Dylan Hartley’s issues striking the ball, their scrum has looked underpowered. Dan Cole, despite Michael Cheika’s assertions and a yellow card against Argentina, has held up well at tighthead but has been unable to go after teams with the regularity he used to.
The impact of Marler and Jamie George from the bench helped England into second half set-piece advantages against all four of their opponents and it has been an interesting contrast on the traditional idea that the more effective set-piece players start, then give way to more adept players in the loose in the second half.
It’s difficult to overestimate the positive impact that Hartley has had as captain but without the quick strike on the ball at the scrum, he has been unable to lend his weight to the push and it is beginning to be reminiscent of Tom Youngs’ struggles at the Rugby World Cup.
It’s something Neal Hatley and England’s front rowers will need to work on ahead of the Six Nations, especially with Ireland and Scotland making good progress in that area.
Youth states its case
England’s goal is the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but as the All Blacks have shown, there is no reason why development should occur in cycles and that troughs in performance are avoidable.
Debuts were given to Kyle Sinckler and Charlie Ewels during the series, two players who should, barring career-ending injuries, be around for the 2023 RWC, whilst other young players such as Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Teimana Harrison have all added to their Test match pool of experience.
That England are not only developing enviable depth, but depth that has the longevity to be around for much of the next decade, is something to be pleased about. New Zealand often turn to their next generation of stars when they have over 20 or 30 caps from the bench and then, unsurprisingly, they look to the manor born as Test starters.
Jones, despite insisting he has only taken the reins to take England through to the 2019 RWC, might want to reconsider his position if he keeps this young team – and the ever-improving pool of young bucks – on their upwards trajectory.
Ultimately, England’s 2016 autumn series must be seen as a significant success
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To record four wins from four games, tie the national record for consecutive wins, blood young players and do it all without the influential figures of Maro Itoje, James Haskell and Anthony Watson available, shows the growth England have undergone in the past 12 months.
There is still plenty of work to be done by Jones, his coaching staff and all the players, but the future is certainly brighter for England after an impressive autumn.