In the cut-throat world of international rugby, nations are ultimately judged on wins and losses. At face value, England’s three consecutive defeats in New Zealand—including a drubbing in the finale last Saturday—mark their tour as a failure. However, according to England rugby legend Neil Back they are an improved team in 2014 and the gap between them and the top-three nations is narrowing.
With next year’s World Cup forming a poignant backdrop to this series, England’s goal was to compete with the hosts and ideally win matches. They did not achieve the latter, but to their credit they toiled hard and won their fair share of battles in a losing war. In the first two games, England held second-half leads only to be pipped by a total of six points. Despite ending up winless, they were outscored in just three of the six halves in this series.
If England wishes to fulfill its dream of becoming world champions on home soil, then narrow losses will not cut the mustard. Defeats against the giants of the game will need to be converted into victories before too long.
Neil Back knows what it takes to rise to the top of international rugby. The former England flanker played in three World Cups including the winning team of 2003. He recognises England’s need to start consistently topping the best nations in the world if they are to achieve their goal.
“Ultimately, if England is to win the World Cup, they have to beat Australia from their pool, who is ranked third in the world. They are also highly likely to face South Africa (ranked second) and New Zealand (ranked first) in the last three games of the tournament,” he says.
Hosting matches at Twickenham against each of these nations later this year gives England an opportunity to put defeats behind them and start building momentum and a winning belief. “England has got to win the autumn series later this year or be right on their heels,” says Back.
The man capped 71 times for England and the Lions makes a valid point. The Red Rose will need to reverse the results of the recent past as they have recorded only two victories in their last 11 matches against the world’s top-three-ranked teams.
Back in 2003, England had established a winning culture many months before the World Cup. They entered the tournament winners of 15 out of 16, including victories against Australia and New Zealand both home and—critically—away.
Back believes that the current team needs to have a similar streak of victories over the next 12 months, including winning the Grand Slam. “They have got to win every game in the Six Nations. If you can’t beat teams ranked fifth down, then how are they going to win seven games on the bounce when they will have to play the top three teams (in the World cup)?
“If England can’t win seven games in a row, then there is no evidence that they can win a World Cup,” explains Back.
Despite their recent inconsistency, the former Leicester player believes that England is making progress. He noticed a change in their attack philosophy throughout the Six Nations,as well as improvement in the players’ decision-making. “From the first minute in Paris earlier this year they were attacking from deep when it was the right thing to do, instead of opting to kick as their first option. They played with their heads up and were full of intent to keep the tempo high and score tries.”
Although they experienced some growing pains, the changes to England’s attacking philosophy eventually started paying off. ““They were looking for the extra pass, which weren’t always going to hand. There were groans in the stadium, but I was thinking ‘fantastic’. By the end of the tournament players were expecting to get the ball while running better support lines, and the same passes were going to hand.”
Another improvement is the increased pool of players that selectors now have to choose from. Back sees some of the casualties earlier this year as a blessing in disguise. “Some notable injuries gave opportunities to other players who have grasped the shirt and made it their own.
“Now we’ve got depth in the squad. We don’t just have 18-20 players, but probably 25-28 now competing for 15 shirts. This will only grow through the summer and autumn.”
A glance at particular positions on the field sees players queuing up for a place in the England team. Props Joe Marler and David Wilson have been stellar throughout 2014, but Alex Corbisiero and Dan Cole (when healthy) will eventually start to put pressure on the incumbents. Fly-half also looks strong with Owen Farrell competing with George Ford, Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani for ownership of the No. 10 jersey.
Midfield remains a concern after it was exposed defensively last weekend. Soon-to-be rugby league convert Sam Burgess may be a wild card for selection this autumn. The current South Sydney Rabbitoh is a dynamic player who may soon have a profound impact on English and world rugby.
Despite success eluding them over the past three weeks, Back still has faith that England can bridge the gap on the top-three nations. He highlights the need to go the extra yard in their preparation and be ruthless with their execution on the field. “The last few percentages equate to the real difference between good and great, winning and losing,” he says.
One of England’s greatest ever flankers believes that the key now for the World Cup hosts is to “build confidence and belief to go on a winning run. If they do this they can win the World Cup.”
The quotes in this article were sourced firsthand.
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