Last week we saw England really show their credentials ahead of the 2015 World Cup with a super display. That does not make the result any easier to swallow, though, as they came so close to beating New Zealand in their own back yard.
I said I wanted to see performances from Freddie Burns, Kyle Eastmond and Ben Morgan and they all stepped up and were fantastic – so much in fact that they have given Stuart Lancaster a real selection headache and I think all three of them could have started the second Test.
It is a collective and cohesive England squad at the moment who are all working off the same hymn sheet and you could see the disappointment in the squad after last week’s loss.
It is up to them to go out in the second Test and perform even better than they did in the first – they have had the cavalry arrive and I think it will really strengthen them but it must have been really hard to drop some of the players who showed that they are capable of taking their game to the next level.
If we lived in a perfect world and the Premiership final was a week before it actually was, then I think we would have seen the side that finished the Six Nations run out in that first Test. However, that was not to be and now that Lancaster has those players available, he has opted for those players who performed so well in that Six Nations.
However Lancaster has also recognised the performances of last week and the likes of Geoff Parling, Ben Morgan and Rob Webber keep their places. Tom Wood was always going to come back in to the backrow and will play a huge part at the breakdown and allow Robshaw to get on with his job – I must say Robshaw was immense for England last week.
My only slight concern is putting Manu Tuilagi on the wing. I know England want to have a look at him out wide but there are plenty of other games before the World Cup to do that. This is a huge game for England – they had New Zealand on the ropes and I think they can have them on the ropes again this week. Tuilagi is such a handful and really scares the All Blacks. He has had his injury but has come back and is fresher than ever and for me he was just outstandingly bulldozing bloody beautiful!
I am not saying Lancaster is making a mistake because Luther Burrell is a great player and has combined well with Billy Twelevetrees but I am not sure he has that same fear factor that Tuilagi brings. Tuilagi is going to be tested with the up and an under plus he is up against Julian Savea who is just outstanding. He will need to be defensively sound and cannot jump out of the line as he has been prone to do because Savea will make him pay for that.
It’s a huge call from Lancaster but he made big calls last week and everyone rewarded him. That is what I like about England at the moment, they know that if they are playing well then Lancaster will reward them with selection and that breeds more confidence for them to perform even better.
So I am not going to fault this decision to put Tuilagi on the wing even if it does turn out to be wrong – Lancaster has been a revelation since he has taken over the England job. Graham Rowntree once said he has dragged them out of the gutter and I agree, he has turned them into serious contenders for the 2015 World Cup and is still tinkering and experimenting with his team.
The All Blacks will be a better side for last week’s run out. They are also tinkering with their side and there is plenty of talent out there. Yes, they were rusty but they were made to look rusty by a very forceful and fearsome England pack.
They will miss Kieran Read – any side in the world would miss him! He puts width on the game and is phenomenal whether putting pace on the ball or offloading. McCaw is a wonderful player but I think he struggles to get on with his own job when Read is missing.
Ben Smith at fullback is a good move – he is a real attacking player and I think he will be very dangerous for them. Israel Dagg has struggled a bit with injury but Smith has been very dynamic from the back for the Highlanders in the Super Rugby competition and will cause problems for England’s defence.
The thing is, England do not fear the All Blacks. They know that they can go toe-to-toe with them and can have them on the back foot in the scrum, can hold them in the lineout and have plenty of strength in depth to win this game.
New Zealand will come back though but as long as England can hold their pattern and their structure then I think they have every chance of squaring the series. I also hope England get the rub of the green when it comes to the referring decisions – they certainly didn’t last week!
Tune in to Sky Sports 1 on Saturday morning to see if England can keep the series alive. The second Test is live, and coverage begins at 8am.