England relishing new freedom
November 24, 2010
Ben Youngs has led the way for England © Getty Images
What a difference a month makes. English rugby has been transformed and, suddenly, even southern hemisphere coaches are talking about them as real contenders for next year's Rugby World Cup.
Before the autumn international series began I was pleading for the young guns - Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Ben Youngs, Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole - to throw down the gauntlet. They've done it more spectacularly than I could ever have imagined. They could not have done it by themselves, of course, and the real bonus is that the rest of the side have stepped up as well.
To be honest I did not see it coming - and I was not alone. This is not something that has gradually evolved under Martin Johnson. This is a real change in philosophy - as near as we shall ever get to an admission that conservative selection and a safety-first approach on the field were a dreadful waste of time.
Freed from their shackles the players I had grave doubts about look world beaters. Take Tom Palmer as a case in point. He now has 19 caps to his name but has never looked at home in international rugby until the last couple of matches. Suddenly, he is making huge dents in attack, big hits in defence and it is all down to playing with so much more pace. Having realised he can match the tempo of the southern hemisphere forwards he wants to take them on.
The same is true of Andrew Sheridan. Insiders up at Sale were bemoaning the fact that he spent far too much time in the gym lifting colossal weights at the expense of his rugby skills but now, after yet another long injury lay-off, he seems to have at last got the balance right.
He looked an awesome athlete when he burst on to the scene in 2004 but all the fire quickly disappeared. Now it is back and, somehow, he looks five years younger. Toby Flood also appears to have come of age at last. He is now offering a threat in the inside channels so defenders can no longer ignore him and he is kicking his goals.
But it is the youngsters who have shown the way. The fact that Youngs saw the chance of something more than just escape when Australia were entrenched on the England line was a breath of fresh air and the way Ashton took full advantage said everything. It was a truly great try - to get away from Drew Mitchell on your second burst takes some doing.
The coming down to earth against Samoa was also probably a good thing. The Islanders played really well but England found a way to win and that is pretty important when you are in a tournament.
The South Africa match is now a marvellous opportunity. The Springboks will be desperate to bounce back from that abject performance against Scotland but they are now very one dimensional - power alone is no longer enough as they should have learned from the Tri-Nations - and are there for the taking.
Nothing can take away from the progress England have already made but Saturday is a golden opportunity to boost confidence still further. If they can play with the same ambition, pace and confidence they have shown in the last two and a half matches they will win.
And three wins out of four will be a real achievement because these have been full-bore internationals, not just money making charades as sometimes happens in the autumn. If only the picture was half as rosy in Wales. They have been the big losers - the performance against Fiji bordered on the unacceptable - and unless they can find some new determination and spirit the All Blacks will massacre them this weekend.
To make matters worse we cannot even blame the innate Welsh weakness up front. True, the line-out has creaked under pressure but they have been pretty solid in the scrums and, for once, failure cannot be blamed on lack of possession.
It has been the lack of penetration that has been the most worrying factor. When Ryan Jones arrived to join the British & Lions in New Zealand in 2005 he was a revelation. It always seemed to take two or three All Blacks to drag him down and only after he had made some really hard yards. Sadly, he does not do that anymore and neither do any of the other Welsh forwards. It is just as bad when they release the ball. Mike Phillips looks as if he is going through the motions, Stephen Jones offers little threat and now James Hook, who will always find space, has been taken out of the firing line. I cannot see a threat anywhere. I never thought I'd be saying this but Wales are now way behind England as an attacking force.
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