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Expert Witness: June Internationals

11th June 2014 06:40

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Expert Witness 2 June 2014 Easter

Key battle: McCaw v Robshaw

With New Zealand pulling off a last gasp victory over their foes England, Expert Witness returns again to discuss the weekend's Test action with Harlequins number eight Nick Easter.

"Being gallant losers will not be a tag that sits comfortably in this current England regime," mused Easter.

"We have to be honest; we did enough and created the chances to win that Test.

"England will be kicking themselves that they again allowed New Zealand back in."

Despite fielding a much weakened side, England led for most of the match as their set piece and defence caused plenty of headaches for the world champions.

"There were some pleasing elements," said Easter.

"Notably the front row performance, Geoff Parling in the line-out and Chris Robshaw, who for the third consecutive match against the All Blacks outplayed Richie McCaw.

"But equally, there will be areas of huge concern too.

"As an example, we are perhaps learning how and when to play with ambition. Last Six Nations was the first time I saw a real threat with ball in hand and we still want to develop those aspirations. But key to it is understanding when to take the risks and I believe it wont be long before this team understands that" explained Easter.

"Playing against the top sides, you have to realise that they will pressure you into more mistakes. Playing too much rugby at the wrong time on the edge of our own 22 can prove costly, as we saw. It is those small margins that define tight games.

"Although we saw glimpses of Kyle Eastmond's pace and step, we missed the auxiliary kicking abilities of Billy Twelvetrees in the inside centre channel, relieving the pressure. In those situations with the team we put out on Saturday the full-back has to step up to become the second reliving kicker.

"We also can learn a lot from the way NZ clear a ruck out; they don't just sit on their ball in attack. They go beyond the ruck putting defenders off their feet to reduce the number of defenders for the next phase; it also helps to remove the threat of turnovers.

"This means the pitch will become a lot bigger as opposing numbers are reduced. It's basic rugby but relies upon upping our physicality in those last couple of metres to go beyond the ruck.

"This group have already proven they're quick learners and I'm sure they'll address that contact area over the coming days."

Elsewhere, Johnny May, Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi all showed what they bring to the international stage and Easter is quick to applaud the attacking ambition.

"Both Manu and Kyle were threats and Johnny May seems to cause havoc in both teams when he sets off on one of those mazy runs," smiled Easter.

"However, some basic failures just took the heat off New Zealand at times. May, for all his threat needs to shut down the space of his opposite men to not allow them momentum. As an example, his tackle choice when New Zealand were attacking our goal line allowed the All Blacks to offload and score. The other squad members need to be aware and react to the leg tacklers and double team with a wrap tackle.

"England's restart work was not of high quality. We failed to cope effectively with their dropouts, not getting the man up high enough and not protecting. Our own re-start work and also kick chasing in general was disjointed. When one guy goes chasing hard you must have a line of chasers in behind because if the kick is too long that chaser is isolated on a one on one and more likely to get beaten, so you need that insurance and defensive wave. Perhaps Andy Farrell would argue he wanted strength in the press defence outside and that's where the numbers were needed, but next week we must contest the aerial battle a lot harder which would also mean better executed kicks.

"There were other pieces of fine-tuning that will make a difference; not being able to count your own players in a line--out is unacceptable at this level, yet we handed over two pieces of crucial territory due to basic accountancy," laughed the big number eight.

"The handling amongst the tight forwards wasn't where it needed to be but that may have had something to do with the pass at times. However, everyone at the highest level is expected to handle like a fly half these days!

"We also need to be in the ear of the referee reminding him we're the dominant scrummaging side. There were two obvious penalties firstly when Tony Woodcock collapsed a scrum drive on the loosehead, then when Owen Franks stood up and crumpled during England's big drive just after half time. Clear penalties not given, so being in the ear of the officials in a proper way is required," chuckled Easter.

Lastly, I'd also ask for some better game management. In the latter part of the first half, it cried out for a catch and drive when we had a penalty 5m out on the AB line. We needed go for that line-out and lay down a marker that we're here to score tries."

With the second Test only a few days away, Easter believes that whilst a lot of players put up their hands in terms of selection, the England management will already know the majority of their starting side.

"Stuart Lancaster will have already selected most of his line-up, however some big performances, notably from Webber and Parling, will maybe make him pause to consider the options," he explained.

"With Dylan Hartley missing a lot of rugby, Webber could start again. And I'd hate to be the man picking the lock partnership. Parling was immense, Courtney Lawes is on fire at the moment and Launchbury is arguably England's most consistent player!

"Thinking laterally with Launchbury's durability he starts. If you then ask who could offer the most coming off the bench, then it has to be Lawes with Parling picked to start to torment the Kiwi line-out. I'm sure Stuart will stick with the youngsters and in my opinion should do so, as they are developing into the best lock partnership in the world, but these are nice selectorial dilemmas to have."

New Zealand, always rusty starters, will grow stronger as Kieran Read and Kevin Mealamu seems set to be recalled to the starting line-up.

However, Saturday may have rocked their structure but it will have re-enforced their faith in their ability to win.

"How many times have they snared wins in the big games in the last five minutes?" asked Easter.

"That's three in the last four tests, testimony to their belief, fitness and method. Key to this is their ability to learn and improve.

"They struggled with England's press defence on Saturday, and had to go very wide to get around them. I fancy the chip and grubber may be on their agenda on Saturday, try to make England think a bit more before blitzing .

"England need to be at the top of every facet of their game to take the Second Test and it'll be a fascinating encounter and one which I believe England will make history with a win The Kiwis have a few questions to answer, some of their senior players look to be showing signs of being in the autumn of their careers and they are proud men, so expect a backlash."

Elsewhere in the rugby world, Australia flexed their attacking muscles with a scintillating display as they humiliated the French, whilst Ireland continued their life after Brian O'Driscoll with a competent win over Argentina.

"Ireland are evolving once again, but we saw an intelligent gameplan against a country they've often struggled against," said Easter.

"Key to this were the performances of debutant Robbie Diack who was a real nuisance with ball in hand. When he learns to offload he'll be even better!" quipped Easter.

"Ireland are always going to be a tough side to beat but they're now developing some depth in key positions, which will assist them greatly.

"With regard to the other Test, well, when Australia perform like that, it's the best eye-candy in rugby isn't it?" he laughed.

"They have always been a side where they maximise every skill available in their backline and Saturday was a demolition job on a French side whose defence was absolutely woeful and disorganised.

"Coming in off his wing time and time again, Adam Ashley-Cooper ran the show in a manner reminiscent of David Campese, and Israel Folau's step around the outside again decimated the French defence.

"With Michael Hooper causing havoc at the breakdown, James Slipper giving Nicolas Mas a hard day at the office and the quality of Will Genia and Quade Cooper set to return, Australia seem to be simmering nicely in their World Cup development. It'll be a cracking group game when we take them on at Twickenham," noted Easter.

"In fact the whole weekend was a great start to the June Tests. I believe that this weekend, England can go one better and if they improve in a few areas, I'll back them to set up a series decider in a fortnight. I'll back Ireland and Scotland to take victories against their respective hosts Argentina and Canada. However, France need to really want to play if they wish to avert another cricket score and Wales and South Africa will both enter the Test arena with an interesting battle of the gainline in Durban.

"It's going to be bruising, big and compelling viewing. Bring it on!"

Nick Easter spoke to James While

Nick Easter played 47 tests for England as a number eight with exceptional ball skills and a powerful physical presence. Regarded by many as one of the most influential forces in English Rugby, Easter's career at Harlequins has been rewarded with a benefit in 2014/15. For details, visit nickeasterbenefityear.com

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