England coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo Reuters
English rugby writers had a busy Saturday night as their
pre-written obituaries on the nation's November series had to
be hastily rescripted into paeans of praise in the wake of the
astonishing events at Twickenham.
England's record-breaking 38-21 demolition of a New Zealand
team unbeaten in 20 matches instantly transformed the defeats
by South Africa and Australia into mere footnotes.
Instead of evidence that England were on the wrong course and
ill-equipped to challenge at the peak of the game, they
became entirely acceptable blips to be suffered in the cause
of long-term gain.
England's biggest win by a distance over the sport's
powerhouses also bought coach Stuart Lancaster all the time
he needs to continue the building job he hopes will culminate
in World Cup victory on that same Twickenham turf in three
Lancaster had been forced to justify his selection and
tactical philosophies after almost a year in the job that
brought four defeats and a draw in his previous five contests
with the big southern hemisphere sides but he would have
enjoyed the newspapers with his breakfast on Sunday.
One Chris Ashton swallow dive does not make a summer of
course and it is not all positive. Those Wallaby and
Springbok losses coupled with France's victories over
Australia and Argentina ensured England go into Monday's
World Cup draw in the second tier of seeds, potentially
producing a far harder route to the final.
However, on the form they showed on Saturday it is England
that everyone else will be wanting to avoid.
The statistics surrounding the game put the result in context
but even they do not do justice to the all-round quality of
New Zealand had won their last nine games against England,
had not lost a European tour game for 10 years and were three
games away from matching the 1987-90 All Blacks' record
23-game unbeaten run.
England had won only six of their previous 28 games against
the "big three" while the best of their previous six wins
against New Zealand came 76 years ago, a 13-0 home victory.
Like the 2007 World Cup, when England came back from a 36-0
pool stage humiliation by South Africa to blow away Australia
with a brilliant quarter-final display, nobody saw this one
England's players did the unthinkable - they bullied New
Zealand. Where they had been hesitant and disorganised
against Australia it was the men in white thundering into the
breakdown and forcing the All Blacks into making probably
more errors in 80 minutes than they had made throughout their
entire remarkable year.
Lancaster's selections were justified as the midfield duo of
Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi showed that they are more than
just bash and smash merchants. Both scored superb breakaway
tries and Tuilagi, who previously passed about as often as
Halley's Comet, created two scores with a combination of hard
running and deft delivery.
Everyone knew that Owen Farrell was nerveless and he duly
kicked England into a 15-0 lead but he also showed a new side
to his game, on the international stage at least, with some
cleverly delayed distribution that finally allowed runners
onto the ball at pace.
With Freddie Burns coming off the bench to replace him for
one of the more memorable debuts and George Ford and even
Danny Cipriani waiting in the wings, Toby Flood's future
suddenly looks in doubt. Certainly it is hard to see Flood,
who started the previous three tests before suffering a toe
injury, running the show in 2015.
The bulk of Saturday's team are likely to be involved though
as, with only 206 caps in the starting XV and with prop Dan
Cole the only man to have 30 to his name, they are clearly
there for the long haul.
"It's a young team but we should be sat here in seven, eight
or nine years with the same guys playing for us and we'll be
the ones with 700, 800 caps," Lancaster said after Saturday's
Before that win few, if any, England players would have
threatened a place in a world XV but one or two could now at
least turn up for the trials without embarrassment.
Tom Wood was immense at blindside flanker, bringing the
snarling aggression and brick-wall tackling that made him
Lancaster's likely first captain before a foot injury put his
international career on the back burner for almost a year.
Tuilagi was massively destructive and New Zealand's concern
about him created space and time for others, while Ashton
finally got the try his selfless and intelligent running
lines have deserved.
Hard-hitting lock Courtney Lawes played only a bit part on
Saturday after an injury absence but his combination with the
impressive Joe Launchbury, who made his first start against
South Africa, could be the long-term second-row solution.
Captain Chris Robshaw seems to have the respect of team mates
and opponents alike and in his workrate and commitment he
certainly leads by example. He will have learned some
valuable lessons in pressurised decision-making too after his
much-criticised penalty options against Australia and South
The key for England of course is to back up Saturday's
Next stop is the Six Nations, when with three home games
including France on Feb. 23, they should expect to be
challenging for the title.
The All Blacks, Australia and Argentina come calling again in
a year and Lancaster will get the perfect barometer of
progress in 2014 with a three-test tour of New Zealand.