While England’s autumn series did not bring the four coveted wins, it would be unfair to say that their results this November have affected their 2015 Rugby World Cup chances. They lost the first two games of the QBE Internationals by three points apiece, in both cases to teams who sit higher than them in the World Rugby rankings, 21-24 to New Zealand, and 28-31 to South Africa. But a 28-9 win over Samoa in week three kick-started a revival and they won beating Australia 26-17 in their last Test match of the year.
Stuart Lancaster and his coaches had to contend with a number of injuries to first choice players last month, which upset the equilibrium in the squad and stilted their form. In the front row alone, Dan Cole, Tom Youngs, Mako Vunipola and Alex Corbisiero were all absent due to lack of fitness, while in the second row Joe Launchbury, Ed Slater and Geoff Parling have spent the month on the sidelines. Two times Lions tourist Tom Croft is joined by Tom Johnson on the back rowers’ sick note, while the all-important midfield duo of Manu Tuilagi and Luther Burrell has also been excluded due to injury. With 217 England caps and 20 for the Lions between them, their absence is not to be underestimated, both in terms of the ability they bring on the field, and the experienced voices off it. While injuries are commonplace in rugby, it’s inevitable that the squad that represented England last month will not be the same as the one that will compete for the World Cup next September.
The problem is we haven’t learned anything new about England from the QBE Internationals. Under Lancaster’s management, the team has come second in three consecutive seasons in the RBS 6 Nations, but their only victory over the world’s number one side was a 38-21 victory over New Zealand in December 2012, at Twickenham, while they have lost their last 11 Test matches against South Africa, last beating them in 2006.
But despite these losses, we know that England can beat any other team in Europe including, crucially, their Rugby World Cup pool opponents Wales, and Australia. They’ve beaten every Six Nations opponent in the last three years, and have won every home match in this competition in the past two. Furthermore, the squad has progressed year-on-year. They were humiliated at the Millennium Stadium, losing 30-3 to Wales and kissing goodbye to a Grand Slam and the trophy in 2013, but came back to beat them 29-18 at Twickenham in March this year, and they also ground out a hard-fought win over Ireland, who eventually took home the title. They have also shown improvement against the southern hemisphere sides, beating Australia at Twickenham on the last two occasions, despite losing to them in 2012.
Lancaster and his team will quickly put this QBE series behind them and compete for a Grand Slam in 2015, with a home World Cup in their sights. Their pool matches against Australia and Wales will both be played at Twickenham in September 2015, and with the support of a nation behind them who knows what England could achieve once they get to the knockout stages of the tournament. Fans with the red rose on their chest can rest easy; England has a big year of rugby ahead of them.