England in New Zealand 2014
Backs to the future
Tom Hamilton in Auckland
June 23, 2014
Marland Yarde has come out of the three-Test series with his reputation enhanced © Getty Images
It was meant to be the series where England cemented their World Cup credentials and put down a marker to the rest of the rugby-playing world. Stuart Lancaster insists they are taking plenty of positives from their trip to New Zealand and have learned more about their squad and just who has whatever is needed to play at the highest level and who doesn't, but it has been a sobering experience.
You can segment each of the three Tests into areas where England lost the game and then the series. But the defining factors in all three are regrets and frustration.
For Lancaster the key difference between where England are and the state of the All Blacks is the ability to convert chances. With a World Cup a year away, it suggests England have far more work to do in the backs than the forwards.
Over the last three Tests the forwards have matched the All Blacks. Bar the odd set piece slip-up or turned scrum, England fronted-up and Geoff Parling has been the outstanding figure in that department alongside impressive showings from Rob Webber and Matt Kvesic in the midweek game against the Crusaders.
You feel the England management will have a fairly good idea of who they will take to the World Cup in that department. There is still room for the odd bolter - Lancaster believed Matt Mullan and Kieran Brookes' performances were a bonus - but if you look at a 17/14 split between forwards and backs in a 31-man squad then there is limited opportunity for fresh-faced props.
Anthony Watson did not play in the Tests but is in the frame for the World Cup © Getty Images
While that area of the team looks fairly solid, the backs is where England have the most work to do, particularly on the flanks. During Lancaster's era they have started with 11 different wingers in Test matches. Heading into the autumn internationals with just 13 games left until the World Cup, following this tour you feel two who perhaps have the best chance of breaking into a World Cup squad are a duo who did not play in the Tests - Anthony Watson and Christian Wade.
Their stock has risen while some of those who played in the Tests have fallen. Jonny May and Chris Ashton did not take their opportunities but Marland Yarde was one of the standout players in the second-half of the third Test after a dodgy first 40 in defence. In Lancaster's words, "there're not many Julian Saveas running around".
In the centres Kyle Eastmond's stock rose then dipped from Test one to three and while Lancaster was largely happy with his forwards, he admitted "there are more decisions to be made" in the backs.
"The backline in general was a challenge in terms of selections. There were a lot of permutations we could have gone for. It would be nice to have a run of games where everyone's available and we can pick from a full deck. We've never had that luxury, ever, Not even close."
The 24 players who started Tests for England experienced varying degrees of success and such is the cut-throat nature of international rugby, we may not see some of them in a Test shirt for a while.
For Lancaster, his next battle comes with the naming of the next Elite Player Squad. At present it looks like Lancaster should be naming it on July 1. Quite how you expect a coach to evaluate a tour, predict form in the opening rounds of the Aviva Premiership and somehow bang together a list of 33 players as he still picks through who performed and who didn't in New Zealand is beyond the realms of realism. He hopes to push it back look at the possibility of naming a team closer to the autumn internationals rather than nailing his colours to the mast in the next week. In an ideal world he wants to name the EPS for the autumn internationals in mid-October.
But as Lancaster has found, scheduling can sometimes be anything but kind. He has emphasised the point both before and after the tour that there cannot be a repeat of the shambles he had to contend with at the start of this series where he had some players in Twickenham, others facing the Barbarians and some already in New Zealand. It was a perfect storm of logistical inadequacy and one completely out of his hands.
If Lancaster succeeds in finding some compromise over the naming of the EPS, then there can be absolutely no excuses heading into the autumn internationals. First up are the All Blacks and in Lancaster's words, "we need to go toe-to-toe with them at Twickenham". It is a key run of games for England, they simply must win all four if they are to start generating some sort of World Cup momentum.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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