Expert Witness: June Internationals

25th Jun 2014, 09:59

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Exceptional: Kieran Read

Exceptional: Kieran Read

In the final edition of Expert Witness for June, former England loose forward Nick Easter looks back at the weekend's action.

In the final edition of Expert Witness for June, former England loose forward Nick Easter looks back at the weekend's action.

At the start of England's series in New Zealand, most judges were suggesting that one win from three Tests would be a creditable and worthwhile return from the improving English.

This goal proved to be a bridge too far from Stuart Lancaster's troops and Easter puts it down to speed: speed of learning, of thinking and most of all, of skill execution.

"That will be one of the most bitterly disappointing losses of Stuart Lancaster's tenure," said Easter.

"All year we've heard to proclamations about detail and execution from the coaches, but on Saturday simple basic errors absolutely destroyed England.

"The first kick of the game defined everything that followed. So much that went well for us in previous matches seemed to come to a grinding halt this weekend and that is no coincidence. It's down to the astute and brilliant understanding New Zealand have for their national sport."

Depressing indeed if you're an Englishman.

"Watching from thousands of miles away your didn't get a feel for how dirty a day that was," he explained.

"It was filthy - wet, miserable and nasty!

"Yet New Zealand did not waver from their commitment to handling rugby. In those conditions their performance was even more remarkable. They were a world apart.

"We talk about taking positives and learning points out of a game in defeat or victory. New Zealand learned every time they beat us. Initially, they struggled with our press defence, which I explained last week. Within three Tests, they'd absolutely overcome it, decided that they could use hand speed along the line to get around the press and executed exactly that. Self-belief, tactical acumen and brilliant execution, those are the hallmarks of this amazing side.

"They broke the game down, turned England's perceived defensive strength into a weakness though clever analysis and in the last 100 or so minutes of test rugby, have torn us to shreds.

"You also have a fledgling midfield there and asking them to communicate against the best and defend against that attack was always challenging. At times, Kyle Eastmond didn't take a step towards the ball once it had gone away from his channel. That left a big hole between the two centres and New Zealand exploited it."

It seemed no coincidence that the All Black improvement coincided with the return of their superstar number eight, Kieran Read. Easter believed he brought a real spark to the first 40 minutes.

"Kieran is an exceptional player but also a key leader. Watch the game closely and his speed of thought is noticeable," remarked Easter.

"New Zealand wanted pace and that went through every aspect of their game. Read calls their line-out, and he was deliberately calling it before England had formed and then taking the quickest and longest of throws, firstly to give England as little time as possible to align, but secondly, that middle and tail ball gives so much width and momentum to an attack faced with a press defence.

"He was sublime for 40 minutes and it was notable that New Zealand just fell away slightly once he'd gone off and in truth, their line-out went to pieces in comparison to the well-oiled machine that we saw in the first half.

"The simple truth is speed and handling like this can't be matched by England right now," added Easter.

"Is this another tour of hell? No, I don't think so. What it has done is made England even more realistic about what they need to do. It's a harsh truism but you can't be the best until you've seen just how good 'the best' are. And we saw that.

"Yes, they'll be despondent that the one win didn't happen; but now England will move forward knowing where that benchmark is. Maybe we won't match the handling skills but we can certainly define our own strengths to idenitfy a gameplan that can beat some of the top class opposition we will be facing in November," added Easter.

Wales, bruised and battered last weekend, showed a dramatic turnaround in form as they came within a touchline of their first win on South African soil.

With compelling displays from a hungry Alex Cuthbert, Ken Owen and a tireless Josh Turnbull, Welsh hearts were shattered when Steve Walsh awarded a penalty try in the dying moments.

"No complaints with the penalty try, it was the right call. It does go to show how much the TMO is changing rugby as we've seen many tackles like that in the past going unpunished. However, Wales really came alive this weekend," noted Easter.

"I was very critical last week of "Warrenball" and in truth, I didn't feel Wales had the physical gift to slug it out.

"But gainline domination is all about belief and want. There must have been strong words in the camp last week and Wales came out a different side.

"Key to this was a solid forward platform. Josh Turnbull, a big openside, really did well and was a strong physical presence around the gainline. I often make the point about clearing out beyond the ruck and he did this to great effect, keeping the big South Africans at bay. This absolutely defuses momentum and makes the opposition start from beyond their own gainline and possession line.

"Samson Lee did really well at tighthead too. Tendai Mtawarira is noted for wanting to scrummage upwards and to try and 'pop' the tighthead, something that is illegal but very disruptive. Lee did very well in this area and Wales seem to have unearthed a quality prop.

"Alex Cuthbert too seemed to have a more roving role, coming in in different angles to disrupt and move the big Springboks around. He really created some headaches for the Bokke.

"However, Wales can rue the penalty try but, for a side that operates the press/rush defence, the about of room they gave Willie Le Roux leading up to the final try was criminal.

Rush defences are about closing the man down ruthlessly before he gets momentum. Wales gave him as much room as he'd ever need and he cut them to ribbons as he'd done in previous weeks. It's also true to say that once SA decided they wanted to keep it in the maul, Wales struggled to cope. Stopping a rolling maul legally is very, very hard; collapsing it is utterly illegal but pragmatically, it's the best way.

"But that needs to be done as the maul is formed not once it gains momentum as then a collapse is more obvious. Once Wales allowed the maul to start, cards became inevitable as they had no choice but to do what they did. You need either to sack the carrier straight away, or drive either side to split the support off, neither of which Wales executed. But in essence they'll be thrilled with the improvement in performance, even if they failed to close it off."

In Sydney, France's rocky season finally came to a merciless end as a ruthless display of finishing from Australia destroyed les Bleus with pace and panache.

At the centre of all