Sunday 21 January 2018

Tony Ward: Exceptional English raise stakes for Six Nations

It's not too often we have the opportunity to lavish praise on our nearest, if not always dearest, neighbours. For myriad reasons, England is the rugby-playing nation we all love to hate, but given the magnitude of what was achieved by Stuart Lancaster's squad on Saturday, their historic win over New Zealand must be acknowledged as an extraordinary achievement.

To Ulster, the perfect 10 out of 10 start to the Pro12 league but to England 10 out of 10 for the type of complete team performance coaches dream about. On second thoughts, make that 9.9, and I'll return to why.

What we witnessed at Twickenham was a team in white doing what the team in black normally does to almost every other side they play.

That New Zealand are the trailblazers in world rugby is beyond dispute. On the back of 20 unbeaten matches before facing England, including a second World Cup, this All Black crop is arguably the best.

Certainly in terms of the ability to suffocate the opposition, allied to the potency to strike from anywhere, this group, even by New Zealand standards, is exceptional. To that, add a squad proliferated with leaders, none more so than those wearing Nos 7 and 10.

In Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, the All Blacks boast two of the greatest rugby-playing exponents in their respective positions of all time. Not only is each blessed with an outstanding skill set relevant to his position, but here we have two superb readers of the game in key sectors with an influential temperament to match.


Add Kieran Read and Conrad Smith to that mix and you have a group of experienced winners with substantial leaders in all areas. It is in this context that the manner of England's win must be judged. It wasn't just sheer bloody-minded bulldog spirit.

Of course, that essential ingredient was at the heart of it, but, more importantly, there was intelligence based on pressurising at the breakdown and in the tackle, and the ability to read the areas of collision and commit the appropriate numbers.

Whether counter-rucking in twos or threes or doubling up in the tackle, there was a wave of white submerging New Zealand, using the game that the men in black consistently do better than anyone. It's tough to pick out individuals but Tom Youngs, Joe Launchbury, Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw were all immense, with the latter shooting himself into Warren Gatland's thoughts for possible Lions leadership.

From an Irish perspective ahead of the Six Nations, England's biggest win, biggest margin in the fixture and the second worst defeat for New Zealand ever is good and bad. If this time next year we master New Zealand at the Aviva by a point, there'll be statues erected stretching from Lansdowne Road to O'Connell Street in recognition.

But what this win does now is heap pressure upon a nation that never comes up short on confidence. On the back of the November series, France led the way up until Saturday, now in most people's minds it's a two-horse race for the Six Nations with 'Le Crunch' scheduled for Twickenham on February 23.

But being an uneven year, we will have England and France here in that order. Our season-setter (much like beating France in Dublin in 2009) takes place at the Millennium Stadium on February 2. If we can come away with a win from Cardiff then anything is possible.

The chariot is still well capable of coming off its wheels. That said, in Lancaster they have a down-to-earth Cumbrian who deals in reality. I like his humility, which brings me back to that 9.9 rating for Saturday's otherwise near-perfect team performance.

What does it take to convince players, specifically Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi, that when they 'swallow dive' or saunter in nonchalantly for an intercept try it turns the rest of the watching world against them?

And I'm sorry but the post-match "I've no idea where it (the swallow dive) came from" line carries little credence. Try the mirror for starters, Chris. I stand open to correction here, but I cannot recall too many New Zealanders taking the mickey when crossing the whitewash and no Test team does the try-scoring routine more often.

Irish Independent

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