‘Beat Springboks or forget World Cup’ - The Sunday Times
Hartley must lead from front as England pack aim to find their edge
Three from four is minimum for England
We haven’t had so much uncertainty around England since Eddie Jones took over. The winning run of 17 matches he then oversaw gave an exaggerated sense of how far England had progressed. By the same token, the poor streak since the Calcutta Cup defeat in February has not reflected their qualities.
If they are to be realistic contenders for the 2019 World Cup, England must win at least three of their four Tests next month. Beating two of the southern hemisphere giants is a standard requirement for winning a World Cup so it stands to reason they must do so with home advantage and at the end of their opponents’ season. One of those victories will almost certainly have to be against the Springboks because it is difficult to see how a defeated team could go on to beat New Zealand the next weekend. Victories over rivals produce a double-win — they boost your own confidence and chip away at that of your rivals.
Manu must be given a central role
It has been a while coming but Manu Tuilagi has strung together a series of good performances for Leicester. I would have preferred him to have had more games under his belt but my instinct is that he should start with Henry Slade in the centre. Along with Owen Farrell, Slade has been the form back since the start of the season. A midfield combination of Farrell-Tuilagi-Slade strikes a strong balance between playmaking and ball-carrying.
Pack of beasts
That will count for nothing if England’s forwards do not get their edge back. What do I mean by their edge? Let’s just say you can’t describe it but you know what it is when you see it. We haven’t seen it with England for a good while. It’s about being tough and smart, relentless and remorseless rather than dirty or cheap. The tone must be set by the skipper, Dylan Hartley.
Losing Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Sam Simmonds has reduced the ballast in the back row. That’s why Ben Morgan has to start at No 8. He has done well there before for England and only he can really compensate for the ball-carrying presence we have lost. Maro Itoje is at his best in the second row so, while he may be needed at six at some point in a game, calls for him to start in the back row should be resisted.
Green with envy at Ireland’s riches
While England fans focus on a first clash with the world champions in more than four years on November 10, rugby neutrals are probably more excited about the game the following week between the All Blacks and Ireland. This Ireland side are even better than the team who beat New Zealand for the first time two years ago in Chicago. Tadhg Furlong played in that game and the way he has kicked on has been phenomenal.
James Ryan and Dan Leavy were barely out of Leinster’s academy at the time yet have announced themselves as world-class players in the past year. When you watch these three do their stuff for province and country, that’s when you recognise a forward unit with an edge. Ireland also have a pack with strength in depth, which is where they fell down as injuries piled up at the 2015 World Cup. If there is a concern, it would be at hooker, where Rory Best is getting on and Sean Cronin, his understudy, is a serious presence in the loose but less dependable in the set-piece. How happy Eddie Jones would be if this was his biggest problem up front.
Wales can be wizards of Oz
Wales must beat Australia on November 10, simple as that. They have not done so in 13 Tests and face the Wallabies in their World Cup pool. The retirement of Sam Warburton and injury to Taulupe Faletau is not ideal but Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric and Ellis Jenkins are capable replacements. Above all, this is a psychological challenge. I liken it to England winning in Paris in 2000, where we had not won since 1992. France were a good, but not a great, team and the result became everything. Achieving that allowed us to move on.
Blues must find a winning tune
Scotland and France each play Fiji, Argentina and South Africa. There is no reason why they shouldn’t beat all three. For Scotland, the early signs from Racing 92 are that Finn Russell has added big-match composure to the flair he has always shown. Around him he has players in form for Edinburgh and Glasgow (the former’s Friday night defeat to Zebre aside). The signs were there during France’s summer tour of New Zealand that they were emerging from their slump. The form in Europe of Racing, Toulouse and Castres should give further cause for optimism.
The first two rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup put the spotlight on the officiating of the tackle height. It’s unlikely to change next month. All we can do is hope that between them players, coaches and referees ensure that results are not determined by cards. I am more interested to see how the breakdown is supervised. It’s an area where England’s lack of edge is manifest. You watch how New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland compete for the ball on the ground and see a ferocity and precision sorely lacking from Jones’ teams in the past year.
Barrett leads from the front
All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett scored 17 points as New Zealand completed a Bledisloe Cup clean sweep with a 37-20 win over Australia in Japan.
Flanker Liam Squire and captain Kieran Read crossed before the break to put the All Blacks in a commanding position and they piled on the points in the closing stages when Australia were a man down.
Australian replacement hooker Tolu Latu was sin-binned for striking Codie Taylor on 66 minutes and tries from outside-backs Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane completed an emphatic victory. New Zealand won the first two Tests between the Trans-Tasman Sea rivals in the Rugby Championship in August to be assured of retaining the Bledisloe Cup.