Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: England circle date for return match

England coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo / AP
England coach Stuart Lancaster. Photo / AP

November 8, Twickenham should be on the mind of England's players.

It's the opening end-of-year test date with the All Blacks and coach Stuart Lancaster hopes his players digest their New Zealand tour and figure out how they are going to shift their games to new levels when the All Blacks visit in four months.

If some have their minds entirely on relaxation they may be surplus to Lancaster's plans to rebuild the team's shell which was scorched by the all-game power of the All Blacks.

Since professional rugby bounced into life in 1996, England have been strong at Twickenham. They have the edge on the Springboks and Wallabies at the venue for the next World Cup final but have sagged badly against the All Blacks.

When England resume, they are facing even greater pressure to get a result against their toughest foe. They also have wider problems than they had at the start of their recent tour Downunder. They used more than 30 players in test combat against the All Blacks but may not have any clearer idea how they compare against each other.

Injured forwards like Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs and Tom Croft who did not travel, should be in the frame for a recall in November.

The framework and style of England's pack is strong although Lancaster is looking for more scavenging loose-forwards who can operate more effectively at breakdowns.

"Absolutely, I'm unequivocal in my mind on that regard," he said.

Other talents like Billy Vunipola need to get fitter to allow England to compete with the All Blacks.

The selectors are also looking for a backline which is more conducive to international rugby, one which can merge the attacking, defensive and attitude demands which are so different at the top level. They have to make the right decisions under pressure and be able to convert chances into tries.

Events probably confirmed Danny Care and Owen Farrell are still his premier halves pairing, that Marland Yarde has some spark on one wing and Mike Brown is a fullback certainty. The bits in the middle are the problem.

Take the case of Manu Tuilagi. He is brutal with the ball and a tough man to contain. However, his vision and distribution skills are mixed and he is slow to turn. England have to sort out what position suits him and the team best and whether he is more value from the bench.

The limitations of the Six Nations may have shielded those flaws. The slightly slower pace in those matches and teams' different attacking ideas are not exposed until they play tests in this hemisphere.

When England huffed and puffed about ending this tour on a high in Hamilton, they were sat even more abruptly on their ample backsides.

It was a fiery retort from the All Blacks after a patchy start in Auckland and an improved work in Dunedin. The message was precise: Take that, England, let's see if you've got any better in November.

At this stage England are on the rise. If you missed that in their series loss you were not paying enough attention. They have quality forwards who are gaining experience, they can run a match with their halves, they can find strong counter-attack but still have to find a palette which suits their qualities. It's got to suit their rhythm, their tempo and their players.

Somehow Lancaster and his cronies have to identify all those things in the Premiership and instill those ideas into the players in training camps before they begin their November exams.

- NZ Herald

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