England seemed to finally find their feet again in the Rugby World on Saturday with a display of clinical and passionate rugby mixed in with intensity and desire, the likes of which their frustrated fans haven’t seen since this time last year.
Slow starts have been noticeably nervy and at times it felt like England have been playing not to lose rather than looking to win.
That mentality is a dangerous one and can manifest in a squad.
Unfortunately, or in this case fortunately, a lot of that squad are injured which meant we were treated to a refreshing new approach from the Red Roses at the weekend.
Gaining quick ball has been a real struggle for the men in white during the last year because their back row have been dealt some sobering lessons at the breakdown. Scotland, France, Ireland and South Africa have all targeted this area of the game and dominated with ease recently as Eddie Jones has trusted his tried and tested combinations. They had become stale and the Australian coaches refusal to try something new has cost him and his players dearly.
They had been crying out for a man that can get over the ball or at the very least cause some destruction at the ruck. Tom Curry has been fantastic at this in the last two tests but his supporting cast have let him down on occasions meaning he’s had to do some of their work for them.
Up front Mako Vunipola has rightfully been elevated by many into the ‘World Class’ bracket but his discipline has let his team mates down on so many occasions. Needless penalties started to frustrate and overshadow his talents.
Billy Vunipola is first choice at Number 8 and as long as he is fully fit, he always will be but his understudy position is one that is certainly up for grabs.
Nathan Hughes hasn’t re-created his dominant club form in the white of England and Sam Simmonds has suffered from niggling injuries at the wrong time meaning he hasn’t had sustained time in the shirt to stamp his own authority.
Eddie Jones may well have finally found some player paracetamol to finally ease those headaches in Sam Underhill, Ben Moon and Mark Wilson.
Moon made his first start for England on Saturday against a true legend of the front row game, Owen Franks. Apart from one scrum that went backwards he scrummaged and equalled Franks at every set-piece, never taking a backwards step. He even did his fair share of work at the breakdown, disrupting ball and slowing it down admirably.
Mark Wilson has waited a long time for this chance and he has taken it with both hands. Big ball carrying is one thing to have in your armoury but the fact that the Newcastle Falcon has spent a lot of his time on the blindside flank in his career means he adds a certain amount of nous around the fringes. He made 17 tackles at the weekend which demonstrates his ability to undertake more than one role in the team.
There was only one man that out played Wilson in the English team and that was Sam Underhill. If it was Wilson that had to be patient for his chance to play then it has been the English rugby fans that have had to be patient to see Underhill’s full talent on show.
Injuries have curtailed his progression to date but there is good reason as to why Eddie Jones and Bath were desperate to prise the openside flanker out of Wales and into an England shirt.
In short, he can do everything that you would want in a complete back rower. It’s not just his physicality that is so impressive but also his timing and rugby brain. Damien McKenzie didn’t let it affect his game on Saturday but a part of him will be hurting right now because of some of the hits that Underhill dished out to him whilst chasing box kicks.
His English rugby legacy was almost written at the ripe age of 22 when he turned last year’s World Player of the year inside out to score the disallowed try in the corner but Beauden Barrett wasn’t to know it would be disallowed and the young pretender made him look silly.
20 tackles thrown in for good measure and you can see why everyone is still talking about him over their Monday morning coffees.
The former Osprey also brings a slice of humility with him. After the match, during a live online Q&A he was asked whether, if everyone was fit, would England beat New Zealand?
‘If everyone is fit then I don’t think I’ll be picked’ was his response. A poignant answer for a young man that clearly won’t be resting on any laurels yet had just outplayed the Kiwi back row.
Before this test match the excuses of injuries and lack of experience were all ready to be wheeled out in pubs and bars across England but after 80 fascinating minutes of world class rugby from both teams in dire conditions it seems that excuses have been replaced with optimism as England made a decent sized statement a year out from the World Cup.