The question at the start of this series was whether England were anywhere near the best test side in the world? Following the series the question now is what does it mean for Stuart Lancaster’s side going forward towards next year’s home World Cup?
With just one year until the World Cup in England, this summer international series meant more than usual. The All Blacks have a win rate of 80% against England, so they knew it would be a tough test. But if they want to end up world champions next year, they must be able to beat the best.
The England players travelled down under to world champions New Zealand at the end of a long, hard season to face the ultimate challenge in test match rugby. The First Test took place at Eden Park, Auckland, where England fielded a weakened team due to the Premiership final, but this gave head coach Stuart Lancaster a chance to look at squad players, pushing for a permanent place in the starting XV. In a closely fought game, in which England lead at half time, New Zealand snatched a 20-15 victory with a 78th minute try by Conrad Smith. Crucial decisions from Welsh referee, Nigel Owens, cost England dear, with Marland Yarde being sent to the sin bin for an offence 20 yards from their try line. When England were awarded a penalty close to the All Blacks try line, no action was taken against the offending All Blacks player.
The Second Test, which took place at Dunedin, gave England an opportunity to field a full strength team to level the series. Although England scored, and went ahead with a Yarde try, New Zealand established control in the match by scoring three tries either side of half time and led comfortably 28-13. England showed their fighting spirit by scoring two late tries to get within a point of the All Blacks. The Third Test completed the series in Hamilton, and was never in doubt from the first whistle, as two All Black tries in the first eight minutes put them firmly in control. New Zealand ran out comfortable winners 36-13, with a hat-trick of tries for winger Savea, and a brace of tries for Ben Smith, to condemn England to another series defeat down under.
Going forward, this is by no means a disaster for England. New Zealand are unbeaten at home since 2009, and are arguably (and some would say undoubtedly) the best team in the world at the moment. So managing to get within a point of the All Blacks at the end of the 80minutes, in New Zealand, must surely be seen as some kind of achievement. It is also important to remember that the All Blacks were playing here with home advantage. Next year the roles are reversed and it will be England with the home crowds. This first, somewhat large hurdle to overcome in next year’s world cup will be getting out of the group stage. England have ended up in the “group of death”, accompanied by Australia, Wales, Fiji and the play-off team, with only the top two advancing to the knockout stages. If they can build on the performances during this series, especially of the second test, then they can arrive at next year’s tournament full of confidence.
The tour was invaluable in giving international experience to a number of new players, as well as giving England a glimpse of the level they must strive towards and get to, to be crowned world champions in next year’s World Cup. Head coach Stuart Lancaster must now pick a settled team over the Autumn Internationals and next year’s Six Nations Championship, and decide who are the players best suited to carry the hopes of the home nation.