Planet Rugby



State of the Nation: England

05th December 2013 07:54


England v Australia Billy Vunipola

Impressive: Billy Vunipola

As we do at the end of every year, we look at the state of affairs in each of the world's leading nations. Next up, England!

Battered and humiliated after their thumping in the Millennium Stadium against Wales at the close of the Six Nations, England have turned their 2013 around since March with a run of four wins and a single loss to the All Blacks at Twickenham.

Three of those four wins came against Argentina - two in South America and one back in south-west London - as Stuart Lancaster's mission to build greater depth to his squad ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup continued.

Shorn of a total of 12 players to the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia by the time Brad Barritt, Billy Twelvetrees and Christian Wade had been flown out (and not including Dylan Hartley's suspension), Lancaster was able to let the likes of Marland Yarde, Kyle Eastmond, Billy Vunipola and more get a taste of Test rugby against the Pumas in their own backyard. Winning the a Test series in Argentina for the first time in 32 years is not an accomplishment to be sniffed at.

The tour was also a chance for Lancaster to let the likes of Chris Robshaw, Chris Ashton and Danny Care take a necessary break from playing due to a mixture of fatigue and disappointment at missing out on selection for the Lions. Of the three, Robshaw has certainly benefited the most.

All debate over whether he should continue to lead the national side was put to bed with his performances in the November Test series. Robshaw made 43 tackles across the three matches and his opportunistic try against the Wallabies levelled the scoreline and set England on the road to victory against their future Rugby World Cup Pool rivals.

Two years out from the next global showpiece, the chatter is beginning to grow around who out of England, Australia and Wales will fail to make the cut and quality from Pool A in 2015. For every miss that Wales have against the Wallabies - make that nine now since 2008 - England have beaten Australia and New Zealand at Twickenham in the last 12 months.

Yet that win over Australia was not England's best performance of the year. Despite losing by eight points, England rattled the All Blacks as France had the week before and Ireland would do eight days after. The win over the world champions the year before has passed into legend, but England a year on where not too far off the pace.

Competing with a bullish set of forwards centred around Robshaw, Wood, Joe Launchbury and Hartley, England have a core and also impressive depth. With Billy Vunipola learning the ropes and seemingly impossible to put down on the first impact, this is a pack of forwards that can run with the All Blacks and Springboks if they have to.

It's from 9-15 where the doubts linger. Is Lee Dickson a better Test option than Ben Youngs or Care? Can Owen Farrell open up England's back-line?

It's also a question of personnel. As things stand, England will be without for either a number of games or the entire Six Nations tournament next year: Manu Tuilagi, Yarde, Wade and Ben Foden. All four are finishers that England need, and the combination of a Yarde-Wade-Mike Brown back-three is lethal - whilst Tuilagi partnering Billy Twelvetrees in midfield would give England almost perfect balance.

But there will be no sight of those combinations for some time, leaving Lancaster wondering ahead of a four-match tour of New Zealand next year. That is England's acid test, the moment where their true quality will be fully exposed. The clock is ticking.

By Ben Coles


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