Are England really as good as some commentators have suggested? Are they worse? While the Six Nations has not definitively answered this question, England are still well below the All Blacks’ standards.
After struggling to impose themselves for much of the matches against both France and Wales, England eventually squeaked past with points at the very end of the matches.
Against Ireland, the English were completely uninspiring. After the opening few minutes, they never looked remotely capable of breaching the Irish try-line.
In all three games, England reverted back to the 2004-15 attitude of running the ball through the forwards, kicking away possession more than they should, and playing for penalties.
Aside from the fact that this style of rugby is truly a snore-fest, it is a poor gameplan against an extremely disciplined Irish side who possess fantastic defence. Despite being on such a long winning streak, and after having played so well in Australia and November, as well as against Scotland, England lack the confidence to pass the ball through the backs when the pressure is on.
Given this, all of the talk of England troubling the All Blacks is premature. Whether England can hold onto their No.2 status also remains to be seen.
Ireland were over-reliant on set piece
Like England, Ireland are still too predictable on attack, rarely threatening to score tries.
This has been the same story for most of the last two years – even most of Ireland’s tries against Australia and New Zealand in 2016 were off the back of the set piece. This is somewhat odd, considering they possess such skilful playmakers in Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson, as well as strong runners in the centres.
Regardless, this needs to be addressed. If Ireland wants to win consistently, rather than continue to suffer poor losses as in the 2015 World Cup, as well as the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations, then coach Joe Schmidt should adopt a more pragmatic game-plan.
Like Robbie Deans in 2012-13, Schmidt has a choice to make, between playing a conservative brand of rugby that produces a great performance every couple of matches, mixed in with a few average ones and a number of stinkers, and a proactive brand of rugby that will see Ireland consistently overwhelm their opponents.
Ireland and England will make up the majority of the Lions
That may come across as overly critical of England and Ireland, but they are very strong. Both boast excellent defences and powerful forward packs, as well as a number of talented backs
Scotland have been much improved, but showed against England how far many of their players – such as the Gray brothers – have to come before they should be considered over their English and Irish counterparts. Wales, meanwhile, despite a brave showing against England and strong performance against Ireland, seemed to continue their malaise (or is it long decline?) against a resurgent French side.
England and Ireland should make up the entire forward pack, with the possible exception of Sam Warburton at 7 and perhaps Alun Wyn Jones at lock.
The back-row is a fight between a number of good English and Irish options plus Warburton. It will be a hard decision for Warren Gatland to make.
It’s between Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell at fly-half, with my nod going to Sexton. Conor Murray, if fit, should start at scrum-half and Ireland and England should share the centres between Jonathan Joseph and Robbie Henshaw.
The one place that Wales and Scotland will impose themselves is in the outside backs, with Stuart Hogg almost certain to start at fullback and George North and Liam Williams on the wings.
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Lions possess no clear area of dominance over New Zealand
Some have claimed that it looks like the Lions, or even England, will have a superior forward pack to the All Blacks. This is mistaken, and unless significant injuries affect New Zealand, their starting XV will be stronger than the Lions.
Owen Franks, Dane Coles and Joe Moody appear better in the set piece and around the field than any of their competitions in the British and Irish Isles, as are Ardie Savea, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read better than any of their competitors up north.
In the backs there is simply no contest.
The only area where the Lions possess a significant advantage is their better forwards depth off the bench, particularly in the front row.
I predict a 3-0 series win for the All Blacks over the Lions.