In the final installment of a series of exclusive pieces for Planet Rugby, Phil Vickery examines how England fared in SA.
Phil Vickery is an Official Ambassador of Wooden Spoon, the leading Rugby Charity. 'Spoon' is a children's charity founded in 1983, dedicated to helping disadvantaged children and young people across the British Isles live happier, richer lives. 'Spoon' partner with the UK rugby community, and during our first 25 years, over half a million young people benefited form over £18 million of charitable support. WS is proud of its legacy, the work it does, and the ambitious plans for the future. Visit www.woodenspoon.com for further details.
So there it is. A five-match tour of South Africa, done and dusted.
Was it successful? That's the key question, and the answer is more down to how you measure that progression rather than anything more scoreline based.
When I wrote the first of these columns, I thought about what success would be for this tour and group of players. Three from five would have indeed been a great result, but despite every effort, England just fell short on the last hurdle. However, in terms of benchmarking and understanding where England are in terms of development, I am confident Stuart Lancaster and his backroom team will be delighted.
The players I've kept in touch with during the tour have, to a man, described it as a very harmonious and focused tour, and have all enthused about the well-known hospitality of the South African people. Only New Zealand matches SA in terms of national fervour for rugby, and I'm sure the players have learned a lot from the rugby-mad country.
South Africa have show that, despite losing a few iconic figures, they still play the most muscular of rugby. They're well drilled, organised and committed, but need to look at their control of the game and ability to play different styles of rugby. JP Pietersen, Willem Alberts and Bismark du Plessis were immense for the home side (indeed, probably the difference between the teams), but equally, Heyneke Meyer will be very concerned about the form and tactical decisioning of his half back pairing.
The game in Port Elizabeth was not a classic but England will draw huge comfort from their display, and also the performances of Joe Marler, Tom Johnson, Alex Goode and the immense Dan Cole, surely England's player of the tournament? In the final analysis, SA just had too much power in the close encounters, and also pressured England's line-out. However, when you consider England fielded a 21- year-old midfield, a 21-year-old loosehead prop, and 13 starting players under the age of 30, the portents for the future are good.
However, England competed. The spirit shown was immense and that is testimony to the back-to-basics approach of the management. Yes, at times we lacked defensive structure and were hanging on by our fingernails, but Andy Farrell's forthcoming appointment (English rugby's worst kept secret!) will assist greatly in this area.
A lot of scribes on Sunday were pretty withering about England's (and Owen Farrell's) lack of midfield spark; the truth is these guys are learning to play with each other, and once they've got the basics right and a platform of understanding, then we can look to expand our game plan and push the envelope in terms of attack- the simple message to the England fans is be patient! This is work in progress.
Looking back on the five games, I think we've learned a lot about the players that toured. Pundits and fans often make the mistake of picking the 'best Test side'. The truth of modern international rugby is that you'll rarely have your first choice side available, therefore strength in depth by position is utterly essential to remain competitive.
In the back three, we have three Test options at full-back- Mike Brown and Foden we already knew about, but Alex Goode was the surprise package with a mature and probing test start in PE. Maybe we're a winger short of Test level, but Johnny May's blistering display in Potchefstroom showed plenty of promise for the future.
In the midfield, it was great to see the emerging talents of Jonathan Joseph and the prospect of Manu Tuilagi and JJ playing together is mouth-watering. Flood and Farrell will continue to joust for the 10 shirt but Toby Flood has now failed to complete 12 out of the last 14 Tests through injury and that's a huge concern. George Ford, confined to the gym for this summer, will also be in with a shout, and rightly so. I see him as the future of English rugby in the ten shirt.
At scrum-half, we're blessed with two world class 9's (Danny Care and Ben Youngs) and a useful back up in Lee Dickson, so no issue there. None either, in the propping department, where we now have at least four international standard props with Dan Cole emerging as the best tighthead in world rugby right now, not only for his robust scrummaging, but his immense tackle and jackal rate.
Lock remains a problem area, and we are yet to find the right blend of punch, power and athleticism, although Geoff Paling's work rate was stoical at times. Courtney Lawes will provide a welcome option if he can retain fitness, and I expect David Attwood to also challenge the incumbents.
In the back row, we need to consider that two of our best were not available due to injury. I've talked a lot about line-out options in the loose forwards and the two Tom's, Wood and Croft, will make a huge difference in this area, fighting for the 6 shirt, whilst Robshaw has made the 7 his own. There is an argument, with the lack of a long term answer at 8, to switch the skipper there, and play both Wood and Croft, but we'll see, although Thomas Waldrom, an unlikely looking back-rower, added a lot of gain-line momentum whenever he played. Tom Johnson's technical play and work rate were outstanding at times and Carl Fearns made a big claim for his future in the midweek matches. With the ever-physical James Haskell also now available, and a natural option as an impact player across all three back row positions, Lancaster will be forced to select, rather than pick, from the personnel available.
Looking forward, I truly believe England have both the players and the momentum to make a great showing in the Autumn Tests. We've come close to matching the most physical side in the world and we've blooded some real young talent. Others, like Cole, Care and Marler have proven their claims as Test starters and perhaps a couple of others have learned that they have a lot of work to do in order to perform at the required standard. Once we've added a little more organisation and attacking intent, we'll be there or thereabouts.
So there we have it; that's pretty much it. I would like to thank all at Planet Rugby for having me and say I've thoroughly enjoyed writing these columns and also reading your opinions on my thoughts.
I'll close by asking you to spare a thought for me this weekend as I tackle the 4 Peaks Challenge (the highest peak of each of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in 48 hours!) for the Wooden Spoon Charity. I was rather looking forward to a gentle stroll until I learned that my partner for the Challenge was none other than Maggie 'The Machine' Alphonsi, the outstanding player in the world in Woman's Rugby, and just about one of the fittest and most competitive people I know! So it looks like I'll have to up my game in order not to be embarrassed by the lovely Maggie! Bring it on!
Until next time,
Phil Vickery MBE won 73 Test caps for England and five for the British and Irish Lions. He was part of England's 2003 World Cup-winning team and captained the side to the World Cup Final in 2007.