A work in progress
August 6, 2011
England's James Haskell powers over for a try at Twickenham © Getty Images
England debuted their much-discussed all-black kit against Wales at Twickenham but there was little to suggest the real All Blacks will lose any sleep ahead of next month's Rugby World Cup.
New Zealand underlined their favouritism for the sport's biggest prize with victory over supposed nearest rivals Australia in Auckland earlier in the day. The clinical display by a much-changed All Blacks side emphasised their class and England and Wales are evidently some way from producing the impressive continuity that was on-show at Eden Park.
The Twickenham tussle was littered with errors as you might expect from two sides that have been restricted to the training paddock for the last couple of months. There were only glimpses of the multi-dimensional, muilt-phase rugby and game-breaking talent that will be required to lift the World Cup.
For England, victory in front of a capacity crowd in their last Twickenham outing before heading to New Zealand of course has its value in terms of momentum but Martin Johnson and his coaching team will have been more concerned about performance - both of individuals, partnerships and the team as a whole as they try to whittle down the squad to 30 players ahead of the August 22 deadline.
What did they learn from this game that they did not know already? Jonny Wilkinson's assured man of the match display was impressive but his class is not in question. He is clearly still in the running to wear the No.10 shirt at the World Cup but that is nothing new either. Manu Tuilagi made a seamless step up to the Test match stage but again we are already aware he has the talent to excel in international rugby. It is his temperament that we have concerns about and this game lacked the intensity to test that to the limit.
Prop Matt Stevens looked like he had never been away from the Test match arena and his scrimmaging prowess and versatility will be a huge bonus for England at the World Cup. Delon Armitage also produced an eye-catching display to signify that Ben Foden may not get everything his way in the coming weeks and that kind of competition will also be welcomed especially following the latest reminder of how injuries can ravage the best laid plans.
The sight of captain Lewis Moody being helped from the field with what looked suspiciously like another right knee injury will have been a depressing sight. Johnson's unwillingness to confirm Moody as his World Cup captain this week may appear a wise move if his skipper is ruled out of action for the tournament.
But you fear it will be the team's shortcomings as a whole that will be most troubling for Johnson and co. Ten weeks in the gym means they are not wanting for brute force but there is clearly work to be done on defensive patterns and also in attack. The hosts were outscored by three tries to two and Wales enjoyed plenty of joy with ball in hand. In contrast, England's muscle laid the foundation for much of their work in attack but it lacked the creativity and precision Johnson would have hoped.
Defeat for Wales is not all bad. Massacred 62-5 in a similar fixture four years ago, this result will not have the same crippling impact on morale. In fact there are several key positives to be taken from the game - not least the fact that they crossed the whitewash more times than their hosts.
OK, their lineout and scrum may have creaked under pressure, but having weathered the loss of first-choice fly-half Stephen Jones in the warm-up they excelled at times. Rhys Priestland moved into the No.10 and more than held his own with Morgan Stoddart slotting in at fullback. But Wales too had their injury woes with Stoddart leaving the game on a stretcher with a broken leg in another example of how World Cup plans can change in the blink of an eye.
Jamie Roberts' potency in the centre alongside Jonathan Davies leaves Gavin Henson with a lot to do if he is to force his way into the midfield make-up. And there was more good news in terms of their attacking arsenal with George North's brace of tries cementing his status as a key attacking threat to complement that of veteran Shane Williams who continues to add to his record try tally.
And while we appeared to see one openside's World Cup hopes dashed in the form of Moody's injury, another appears destined to make his name amongst the best in the world. Sam Warburton delivered another notable display and took the honour of leading his country once again in his sizeable stride. Denied a try by some desperate defence, he is set to be a key player in Wales' World Cup fortunes.
Much like most pre-season clashes, this game failed to hit the heights in terms of the rugby on show but free of the ring rust, both sides must make a big step up in level of performance at the Millennium Stadium next weekend or face being classed as World Cup also-rans before the tournament has even begun. The clock is ticking.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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