Heroics cover over the cracks

England v France - RBS Six Nations

After England’s rugby union side almost pulled off a sensational result against France last Sunday, many fans were left feeling extremely positive about their chances at the upcoming World Cup. However, they didn’t do quite enough and finished runners-up for the fourth successive Six Nations, meaning they haven’t won the event since 2011. The future of English rugby looks bright, but there are still gaps that need to be plugged if silverware is to be won again.

Despite opening their campaign with a highly impressive 21-16 victory over Wales, England’s defensive play was often questionable throughout the championship. Both Italy and the French managed to punch alarmingly large holes into the backline whilst there was far too much ill-discipline in their own half, which resulted in England’s only loss to eventual champions Ireland. Not only that, but against Scotland they butchered a number of golden attacking opportunities that should have seen them win by a much greater margin than they did. Yet they still managed to come second.

All things considered, it can be said that England’s tournament was a success, finshing runners-up even with all the aforementioned problems. Take a look at the wider context, though, and it’s clear to see why many, are labelling the outcome as a failure. The comments of Ian Ritchie – chief executive of the RFU – following the France game may seem harsh but he’s got a point; England are a team who should be winning titles. Finishing runners-up means nothing to a nation who invented the game and won the World Cup not so long ago. England may be consistent – something most of our national teams lack – but at the moment they are consistently failing to get over the finishing line.

England should take heart from this tournament though, not least because of their attacking play. When Stuart Lancaster first took over as head coach after the dismal 2011 World Cup campaign, the brand of rugby played relied largely on kicking and was dull. Many of the players were ageing, slow and happy to just trundle along and hope the opposition would make a mistake. This has all changed now; the players are younger, quicker and not afraid to take defenders on. As well as this, the ball is now passed and offloaded much more efficiently than in the past, often leaving the opponents scrambling to regain their shape. Not only is it refreshing to see England play in such a way; it’s bloody exciting.

The change in style also highlights just how cohesive this current group of players is. England have had a number of superb talents in recent years but they have never fully gelled into a team. This could perhaps explain the emphasis on kicking – there may have been a lack of trust in each other to protect the ball when in-hand. The last few weeks, however, have shown that Lancaster finally has a squad full of skilled individuals who are also performing well as a unit. I will even go as far as to say they are the best overall ‘team’ England has had since that World Cup-winning side of 2003, although they still have a way to go before matching the standards of Johnson, Wilkinson and co.

On top of all this, there are still a number of star players due to return from injury, including Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell. Nonetheless, whilst their availability for the World Cup will be a huge plus, I personally would be cautious about bringing them straight back into the side. Despite making some errors against France, George Ford – Farrell’s replacement at fly-half – had a superb tournament and really linked up well club team-mate Jonathan Joseph, himself deputising for Manu Tuilagi at outside centre. Although he may be a better overall kicker, I personally don’t think Farrell is as quick-thinking as Ford, whilst Joseph was the tournament’s top try-scorer. Not only do neither deserve to be replaced, but doing so may actually diminish the cohesiveness of the squad and have a detrimental effect on performance.

The key question is this: does England’s performance in the 2015 Six Nations suggest they can win the World Cup? As much as I’d like to say yes, I think it should only be done so with great caution. They may have run New Zealand and South Africa – the top-ranked teams in the world – relatively close last Autumn but there is still a gulf in class between these two and the rest. However, England have clearly improved since then and, with the tournament being home soil, the chances of an upset are as great as they ever will be.

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