“Potential has a shelf life.”
― Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
The English rugby team have had a turbulent time over recent years. Since Johnny Wilkinson’s devastating stroke of brilliance brought the English to World Cup glory in Sydney 2003, they’ve hit highs and lows, without ever hitting too high. The tenures of Brian Ashton, Andy Robinson, and Martin Johnson have had their high points and low points. However, under current coach Stuart Lancaster, England are on the brink of hitting a higher peak than they have in recent years.
Over recent years England have had some excellent performers, excellent players and excellent moments. However, Lancaster’s regime is finally gelling all these things together. He’s managed to take a bunch of young talented players, and he’s managed to make a team out of them. And they’re becoming quite the team.
Ever since England conquered the All Blacks in Twickenham toward the end of 2012, there’s been something brewing. Glimpses of perfection, we saw how Lancaster’s men destructively dismantled the world beaters from New Zealand. They showed their danger, and they showed their power. We saw England’s full potential that day. Manu Tuilagi, Owen Farrell, Billy Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Dan Cole. These are but some of England’s star players, and we’ve seen them along with their teammates develop hugely over the last few years. However, potential does have a shelf life – and it’s time for England to step off that shelf and reach their potential before they go past their sell by date.
This England team have grown in stature, maturity, and strength from year to year. They’re at that breakthrough point where they’re about to hit that potential, hit that stride, and hit their prime. A young team, there are years ahead of them – however they’ll want to reach that point leading up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. An England team at full strength, in their own backyard, they’ll be extremely difficult to beat.
This series against New Zealand has seen England go toe to toe with the best in the world, and they’ve brought them to hell and back. England have played to a higher level than Steve Hansen’s men and Robshaw and co. have been a more consistent side over the first two legs. They’ve lost the series, they’ve lost the two opening games, yet the third is still worth a lot. A victory for England in the final test is more than a moral victory, it’s a statement. They’re here to play ball.
Victory for England could mark a turning point, and something they could really kick off from. Psychologically, it’ll hugely prepare them for the coming season. All the work that Stuart Lancaster has put into this side since taking over will be defined at the Rugby World Cup in England. That is the star in lights that all these teams are following. This is what beckons.
New Zealand are admittedly out of form, but they’re a rare beast. One that you can weaken and weaken, only for it to come back stronger than ever. We’ve only seen that All Blacks side for roughly 20 minutes of the second test. They won’t want to be embarrassed on their home turf – they’ll want a performance. This is where we’ll test England’s mentality. Can they put New Zealand off their game once again, and this time be clinical enough to finish them off? Rattle them early, disrupt their phase play, put them on the back foot, and take advantage of a wounded animal. We can say what we want about New Zealand’s performance and turning up – but at the end of the day a win against the All Blacks is a win against the All Blacks. It’s not something that’s easily forgotten, and you can rest assured Lancaster and his men won’t forget it heading into the new season.
Tomorrow England can come off that shelf, fulfill their purpose, and blow everyone away. Or else, they can remain on that shelf further. But time is ticking, and not in their favour. The closer they get to expiry, the less chance they have of fulfilling their goals. The less fresh they’ll be. And the less quality.
That shelf does have a sell by date, and it’s best before September 2015.
Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.