By Harry Hawkins
The success of England’s tour of South Africa must be measured against the goals it set out to achieve. These were twofold: to achieve a series win over the Springboks and to continue the long-term growth of the team with a view to winning the 2015 World Cup.
On the first count, the tour can be seen as nothing other than a failure. England will fly home from South Africa without even a Test win to their name and although an away draw against the Springboks is nothing to be scoffed at - and indeed the other Tests were reasonably close-run affairs - the ambition of Lancaster and his side is rightly such that even draws and narrow defeats should not be celebrated with too much vigour.
The overriding feeling in the squad, however, can be one of cautious optimism looking forward. Question marks linger - most obviously around England’s perennial problem, the midfield - but for a side self-confessedly still on a learning curve that is to be expected. After this tour, Lancaster can approach the autumn internationals confident that he has personnel at his disposal to be competitive both in the short term and heading towards 2015.
England’s pack can take pride having in large parts matched arguably the best in the world. There might be hints of over-reliance on Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, whose positions seem to be almost uncontested, but England fans should be encouraged by the emergence of Joe Marler as a credible, youthful loose-head to tussle with Alex Corbisiero for a starting berth. England’s lineout was not infallible but the Test locks all tackled and carried industriously. With Robson pushing hard in the midweek side and Courtney Lawes still yet to make his mark on Lancaster’s regime, the second row could yet emerge as one of England’s strongest positions.
Chris Robshaw seems to have finally solved England’s open-side conundrum, offering defensive reliability, unerring commitment and breakdown prowess. Meanwhile at blindside Tom Johnson shrugged off the absences of his namesakes Croft and Wood as trivialities, giving England real strength depth in that position when all three are fit. Neither Waldrom nor Morgan took convincing ownership of the number 8 jersey, but on form both players look comfortable on the international scene.
Competition between Youngs, Care and Dickson for the scrum half position is another encouraging prospect for England, while the back three also seems to offer as much threat as any Northern Hemisphere side. A try tally of zero belies Chris Ashton’s fine tour while Ben Foden and any one of Mike Brown, Alex Goode and Christian Wade can complete a very dangerous back-three.
As before the tour, England’s biggest problems continue in the midfield. No combination Lancaster used created a balance that looked consistently threatening. Various permutations looked transiently good, and often held their own for large parts of Test matches. But no midfield England utilised offered an exciting balance of ball carrying ability, defensive prowess, distribution and pace. Lancaster now has the choice of persevering with current personnel in different combinations or introducing new blood to this troublesome area.
Problems aside, though, what has impressed most about England, has been their sheer belligerence. They showed it throughout the Six Nations and they retained it in South Africa. The side is not yet technically or tactically world-class, but in terms of heart and commitment they are now among the best in the world. Their tactical kicking is often abject, they miss tackles, and their handling is marred by imprecision – but they work hard to compensate for their own and for each others’ errors. Even against the mighty Springboks, that was enough to keep them in contention until very late in each match.
The relative closeness of each score-line will give England confidence this autumn – with a vocal Twickenham crowd behind them they must believe they have a good chance of victory against at least two of their fearsome South Hemisphere opponents. This tour has taught England that they have the psychological capacity to go toe-to-toe with the best – what they now need is the technical ability to close out victories.
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