England's selection headache
Tom Hamilton in Auckland
June 9, 2014
Ben Morgan was superb on Saturday but will Billy Vunipola return? © Getty Images
"We can't be happy with losing, even if we can be proud of the effort," England skipper Chris Robshaw said post-match. "Only the result matters in the end and that went New Zealand's way."
Those England players who were sitting in the Eden Park stands had more caps than those on the pitch. It was widely meant to be England's B-side that played the first Test against the All Blacks last Saturday, they were meant to roll over. But England stood up on New Zealand's sacred turf.
Now comes the difficult part for Stuart Lancaster. After working with a squad of limited numbers where those who were fit had a good chance of starting or at least sitting on the bench, he now has almost a larger pool to pick from with a lot of his Six Nations regulars eager to pull on the shirt again.
It is hugely unfair on those who played so well in the first Test that they may not even be in the matchday 23 next week but it is a good sign of the growing strength in depth at Lancaster's disposal. At fly-half Freddie Burns, who went into the match probably fourth choice in their pecking order, did what was required of him and put in a performance that belied his four-cap international tally. But then waiting in the wings are Owen Farrell and Stephen Myler. It's a nice headache for Lancaster to have.
"Most of the boys that played really put down a marker and hopefully gave the coaches some tough decisions to make," was Burns' assessment and Lancaster said as much when asked about the selection headache he faces.
"It is a balance," Lancaster said. "There are players who played very well for England in the Six Nations and through no fault of their own, could not play in the first Test. As a consequence, I think they should be given an opportunity, not all though. In my mind there are three games to utilise but like I say, it is hard on a player who has lost his shirt through no fault of his own but equally it's equally hard to turn around to a player who has played so well against the All Blacks in the first Test.
"The most important thing for me is that the players understand the bigger picture and stay connected as a team that is real strength in depth yet maintain the balance between that and winning the next game."
There were plenty of positives for Lancaster. The scrum laid an impressive platform with Ben Morgan and Rob Webber both immense. Chris Robshaw put in one of his best performances for England but again two of those three may not start next week.
Robshaw's place is guaranteed but despite being singled out for post-match praise from Graham Rowntree, Morgan and Webber may be, cruelly, relegated to the bench in favour of Dylan Hartley and Billy Vunipola. It's a difficult juggling act and like the pack, there are similar dilemmas in the centres.
The availability of Billy Twelvetrees, Luther Burrell and Brad Barritt could lead Manu Tuilagi to be used on the wing, though Lancaster did admit there were some reservations over his ability in the air.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen talked up England all last week. It seemed at times to be a mere box ticking exercise which is common in international rugby - talk up the opposition and then put 50 points on them. But the first thing he said post-match was: "I've been telling you all week England aren't a bad side".
There are two bits of bad news for England. The first is that the All Blacks would have got one hell of a fright. They aren't used to be pushed that close but they still have that upper two inches which other teams can only dream of. There's a self-belief and sporting inevitability about them that whenever they go into the closing stages of the match locked in an arm-wrestle, they will prevail.
The next segment of bad news is that Kieran Read and Julian Savea are waiting in the flanks, two players who would get into most team's starting XV without much trouble.
England will feel they have a few characters in their arsenal which may cause the Kiwis some difficulty and it is all building up to what should be a fiery match next Saturday. For England during the World Cup their matches in Dunedin saw them fall relatively flat. It was the Greenhouse of Pain for them. Much has changed since then and there is a growing optimism about the strength in depth they now possess.
Come next Saturday, they will hope to continue to show more of what they are about as they attempt to equal the series.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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