The ongoing evolution of England
Tom Hamilton in Christchurch
June 16, 2014
Kyle Eastmond looks set to feature for England on Saturday in some capacity © Getty Images
After two Tests in the hardest place one earth to win a game, Stuart Lancaster is learning more about his side now than he would have done through a Six Nations campaign. "For me, this tour has always has been who can and who can't deliver at the highest level under intense pressure," was his assessment as the dust was still settling on their 28-27 loss in Dunedin.
Short-term setbacks at the expense of long-term growth seem to be the current outlook from the England management. What has become clear over the past two Tests is that England are still a team in evolution. They have not yet got that telepathic connection the All Blacks' seem to have. In Saturday's Test Conrad Smith, who will miss the third international, was the master puppeteer in the midfield with his able team-mates running the perfect line off him. Passes were flung in expectation rather than hope. It just worked.
But while Lancaster said post-match on Saturday "the positives outweigh the negatives" you feel they need a win in Hamilton to rubber-stamp this tour as a notch up in the team's development.
And central to that is accuracy. Loose kicking allowed the All Blacks to counter-attack with a wonderful abandon in Saturday's Test and sometimes indecision around the breakdown and rushed play created self-induced errors.
They will be things which the coaching staff will try and iron out this week. But what they cannot magically sort is the team's lack of international experience. That will come in time but as Lancaster pointed out on Sunday, the All Blacks are averaging 50 or 60 caps a man but England had three players in Saturday's XV whose tally was in the single figures.
It is a huge gulf to make up but the general outlook is one of peaking in a year's time. It is still a learning process for England, they are on a journey the All Blacks probably experienced in 2009 when they were left in the wake of South Africa.
But the group are not deflated, according to the coaching staff, more frustrated with those irks focusing around the third quarter. Things like composure and experience cannot be taught in training but they can be learnt and nurtured.
"What we need to do, as a group, is to absorb the lessons are learn them quickly," Lancaster said. "Often it takes you to come to the highest level to find out what it takes to win, what it takes to win a World Cup."
They will refrain from making a gluttony of changes to the team ahead of the third Test and Lancaster seems content with this current crop but as they sweat on four injuries and weigh up the Manu Tuilagi conundrum, there could yet be the odd tweak here and there.
Dylan Hartley is likely to get the chance from the outset while Kyle Eastmond, who has been omitted from Tuesday's team for the Crusaders match, should come into the equation in the backs. He offered both gainline breaking skill and a passing game in the first Test and is perhaps the most All Blacks-esque back England possess in their ranks.
It is such an emergence which is perhaps why this four-game series is so key for England's development. The midfield combination is one area of the team where there are still more questions than answers and opportunities are running out for Lancaster to establish his first-choice 12 and 13 partnership.
Tuesday's match against the Crusaders will give Lancaster a chance to see more of his fringe players in action. When you are 2-0 down in a series against the Kiwis you can imagine such a midweek game might become more of an annoyance than a carrot but there will be a group of players keen to show the management what they are capable of.
Combinations will be tested, the England coaching staff will run a close eye over how players cope with the pressure of running out for their country albeit not in a Test match and conclusions drawn. There are only a few opportunities left for the management to see those in contention for a spot in the World Cup squad.
"It's huge," Graham Rowntree said on Monday. "It's a competitive squad, it's a big squad and that's the reason we've brought so many guys, to have a look at them in training and to play in this game. People like Ed [Slater, captain for Tuesday's game] have been excellent to work with, they've been patient and this is their big stage tomorrow night and notwithstanding we haven't yet finalised things for the weekend so there is a lot to play for."
Losing a Test series is never a fun experience but chastening games like Saturday's could yet be the making of this team. It is up to them to prove on Tuesday and Saturday that lessons are being learned and there is a continual improvement throughout the squad.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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