England emerging as a force to rival New Zealand

Date published: March 15 2017

England are undefeated in 528 days and on the cusp of making history. Never in Eddie Jones’ wildest dreams could he have imagined this is where he would be 16 months into his reign as head coach.

Not only are his squad chasing their 19th consecutive win on Saturday, something which would see them eclipse the current record that they share with New Zealand, but it would also bring England back-to-back Grand Slams, something which has not yet been achieved by any country in the Six Nations era.

In fact, in the 115 years that Grand Slams have been attainable in the 134-year-old tournament, this would mark, if successful, only the sixth time a team has achieved the femat in back-to-back seasons. Wales and France have both done it once apiece, with England accounting for the other three successful defences.

The history doesn’t end there, either.

It’s not just the England men’s side searching for a Slam this week, but the Women’s and U20 sides also have perfect records heading into the final round. Should they complete the clean sweep and bring home all three, well, that’s never been done before.

The closest any side has come was in 2011, when England won Grand Slams in the Women’s and U20 tournaments, but were held to a title and no Slam in the men’s tournament.

The venue for these history-deciding clashes? None other than Dublin on St Patrick’s Day weekend. Unfortunately, the winners of the men’s and U20 tournaments are already decided, but as scripts go, this is still a box office draw.

Whilst we tend to focus on England’s rivalries with France, Wales and Scotland within the Six Nations, I’m not sure there is a nation who will relish the prospect of spoiling England’s party – in all three tournaments – quite as much as Ireland.

It is also rather fitting that England’s men go searching for victory number 19 against the very same team that denied New Zealand extending their streak to that lofty number. With England and New Zealand not set to meet until at least 2018 – unless the RFU’s late push for to play the All Blacks later this year comes good – this seems as good a benchmark as any to judge the two teams by.

That match is the dessert at the end of a rather sumptuous Anglo-Irish meal, however.

The U20s and women kick off the weekend with a double-header at Donnybrook on Friday evening. Both sides have been a cut above their opposition in this year’s tournaments and will head to Dublin as favourites, albeit with Ireland also seeking a Grand Slam in the Women’s Six Nations.

That match between England and Ireland Women, both seeking a Grand Slam in a World Cup year, looks like the pick of the final week and as an appetiser for “Super Saturday”, it could well be enough to sate the hunger of even the most ravenous of rugby fans.

Inevitably, though, attentions will be focused on the clash a mile or so up the River Dodder, where the men go head-to-head at the Aviva Stadium. It is the final match on Saturday, the match that had been singled out, pre-tournament, as the jewel in the crown of “Super Saturday”.

Though the title is decided, the match is no damp squib.

It’s been a disappointing Six Nations for Ireland, who have, thus far, seemed to take one step forward and two back, but with the titles gone in all but the Women’s Six Nations, what better way to celebrate St Patrick’s Day than by inflicting misery on the English? Throw into the mix the opportunity for players to lay down one last Test marker for the British and Irish Lions tour and we have a match that should fizz in all the right ways.

For this England squad, it is another opportunity to write themselves into English rugby lore.

They have already broken the win streak of Sir Clive Woodward, Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson’s vaunted group and now they bid to be the first consecutive English Grand Slam winners since legendary figures of the Red Rose such as Brian Moore, Jeremy Guscott and Jason Leonard did so in ’91 and ’92.

Accomplish that and it leaves just the two elephants in the room – supplanting New Zealand and winning a Rugby World Cup.

That group led by Woodward did both of those things. They won the Rugby World Cup, beat New Zealand on multiple occasions and established themselves as the number one team in the world. This England team aren’t there yet.

With the 23 that took on Scotland having an average age of 26 years and boasting an average of just over 40 caps, they are a group that is still a significant way off from peaking and that is a scary proposition for their rivals, even the All Blacks.

Indeed, the clamouring is getting louder from New Zealand.

“Their 18-match win streak isn’t as good as ours. They played lesser opposition.”

“Try winning back-to-back World Cups, then we’ll talk.”

“They haven’t even played the All Blacks, there’s no way they can be considered the top team in the world.”

It may not seem it, but these kinds of responses are the greatest compliments you’ll hear the New Zealand public pay England. They may not be rattled, but they are certainly irked.

They should be irked, too.

Beyond their win record hanging in jeopardy and the brash claims that England may be better than New Zealand, there is something even bigger and more ominous looming in the shadows of England’s winning run.

New Zealand are facing the proposition of being replaced as the pre-eminent rugby nation in the world.

Just bear with me, please.

The greatest weapon in the All Blacks’ arsenal has been their remarkable consistency. Since the world rankings were introduced in 2003, New Zealand have never slipped lower than 3rd and since 2009, they have had a complete monopoly on the number one spot. The likes of South Africa, Australia and England peak and dip, but none have been able to match New Zealand’s staying power at the top.

This is the source of the All Blacks’ position, in professional rugby, as the biggest brand that the sport has to offer.

Their current lofty standing is, in large, a reflection of their dominance at U20 level from 2008-2012, not to mention the age-grades before the U20 classification came in, but that mantle has been passed to England, who have now won three of the last four World Rugby U20 Championships. It is no coincidence that England’s current success and squad leans heavily on the title-winning crop of 2013, as well as the side that made the final in 2012.

For now, the 2014 and 2016 title-winning groups are largely untouched, but continue to prosper in the Premiership and push their cases for inclusion.

Combined with this year’s crop, who not only hunt for their own Grand Slam at Donnybrook on Friday but who are also gearing up to defend their U20 Championship title in Georgia this June, the resources are there for England to not only sustain their current senior successes, but to further improve their fortunes over the coming years. The current U20 class may even be the best England have ever put together, such is the level of talent in the group.

This enviable depth at senior level and deep pool of emerging talent has previously been the sole domain of New Zealand, but England are eyeing an aggressive takeover.

With the light finally switching on and England prioritising skill development in their age-grades, they have the playing population, resources and professional structure required to make leapfrogging New Zealand in the rugby hierarchy a very real possibility.

Of course, losses across the board for England this week in Ireland will bring a few chuckles and murmurs of another false dawn, but the infrastructure is there for consistent success – at the highest level – and that should be concerning for the All Blacks.

Actually, “concerning” might be the wrong word.

The All Blacks have sat atop their perch for so long now that, whilst the wins are still eminently enjoyable for New Zealand fans, there are notable signs of malaise. For many, winning is expected with such surety that it clearly goes beyond confidence and belief in the team and borders on that most English of critiques, arrogance.

With both the Wallabies and Springboks looking like shadows of their former selves, England’s rise and potential for long-term competitiveness at the very top could, and perhaps should, be embraced by New Zealand. Iron sharpens iron and the All Blacks need someone to keep them on their toes.

New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen has already said similar, describing England’s achievement as “great for rugby because we want competition and games that people want to watch and get excited by” whilst he extended his congratulations to the side for equalling the consecutive wins record that his team set last year.

Whether a veiled dig at the lack of competitiveness from Hansen’s southern hemisphere rivals or genuine appreciation for England’s accomplishments, it does speak to the changing of Test rugby’s powerhouses. The term “Big Three”, for so long bandied about by people in both hemispheres, is rapidly fading away.

England have done well to make the most of their opportunities and fill the vacuum created by the diminishing of South Africa and Australia as imperious Test forces, but their journey is far from over.

Can England win the 2019 RWC? Yes.

Can England surpass New Zealand as the number one team in the world by 2019? Probably not.

Does the future of Test rugby look white or black? Let’s just say it’s looking very grey, at the moment.

For now, the war of words between the rose and the fern will wage on until we get what everyone wants, a Test match between the two nations.

We can but hope it comes sooner rather than later.

by Alex Shaw