Even though Eddie Jones’ England impressed the global rugby community with a comprehensive 3-0 series victory over the Wallabies, New Zealand’s search for perfection in both and attack and defence against Australia in Sydney shows no one in the world comes close to them.
For those Red Rose supporters getting a little carried away after their side won a trio of hard-fought tests Down Under, England are still very much a work in progress and no way near the clinical finishing, handling and almost supernatural awareness of the All Blacks.
Whilst England showed glimpses of promise in attack against the men in green and gold, New Zealand were relentless. In Sydney it was as if the ball was glued to the players’ fingers, such was their handling ability for much of the match.
Pass after pass was made with an efficiency that is something new to the game. Players seemed to know exactly where their teammates were on the field at any given moment. If we wondered where the All Blacks would go next after successfully defending their World Cup title then it is to set a whole new benchmark for the rest of the rugby world to catch up with.
To go to Australia and to a city where New Zealand have historically struggled and put 42 points on the hosts is remarkable. To prevent the previously much-vaunted Wallabies attack from scoring for almost all of the match is outstanding.
Even though New Zealand have lost legends of the game and arguably some of the greatest names to have taken to the field in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kevin Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and more, their conveyor belt of talent means they have ready-made replacements in Sam Cane (already an All Blacks captain), Beauden Barrett, Codie Taylor, Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa. They have all carried on where their antecedents left off.
Indeed, Barrett’s performances for the Hurricanes this season were crucial to his side’s march to their first Super Rugby trophy and he has taken his game to a new level following the international retirement of Dan Carter. He was involved in everything good about the All Blacks’ wins against Wales earlier this year and again in the dismantling of Australia.
England, in contrast, have players that are emerging to become world class in the likes of Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, George Ford and Anthony Watson, but the real test of their improving credentials will be when white meets black in 2017 at the very earliest.
Given South Africa’s mediocre performances against Ireland and Argentina this season it’s fair enough to claim England are the second best team in the world, but they have to improve their attack – as this writer previously discussed, to come close to competing with the world’s greatest team.
And whilst England’s finishing is becoming more refined and they are taking opportunities when they are provided to them, pace is something the men in white will have to work on. New Zealand can move from first to fifth gear in a matter of seconds and their ability to play quickly and with consistency and accuracy is something Australia simply could not live with throughout Saturday’s Rugby Championship opener.
Itoje has led the way in that regard for England, but even he has admitted he can get fitter. From numbers one to twenty three England must become athletes in a similar mould to New Zealand, so that they can play their own game against the All Blacks and live with them in attack and defence. Hopefully the new ‘progressive partnership’ between clubs and country will allow Eddie Jones the time and access he needs to take England forward in this area.
However, New Zealand’s thrashing of World Cup finalists Australia is just what England need to bring them back to earth. Feet will be firmly on the ground after a halcyon summer and any unwarranted hubris from England’s finest will be replaced by a desire to improve.
With the All Blacks’ determination to play the ‘perfect game’ the next few years in international rugby promise to be some of the most demanding yet for their opponents. England and the rest of the rugby world that trails in New Zealand’s wake must rise to that challenge.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena