LONDON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - English rugby writers had a busy Saturday night as their pre-written obituaries on the nation’s November series had to be hastily rescripted into paeans of praise in the wake of the astonishing events at Twickenham.
England’s record-breaking 38-21 demolition of a New Zealand team unbeaten in 20 matches instantly transformed the defeats by South Africa and Australia into mere footnotes.
Instead of evidence that England were on the wrong course and ill-equipped to challenge at the peak of the game, they became entirely acceptable blips to be suffered in the cause of long-term gain.
England’s biggest win by a distance over the sport’s powerhouses also bought coach Stuart Lancaster all the time he needs to continue the building job he hopes will culminate in World Cup victory on that same Twickenham turf in three years’ time.
Lancaster had been forced to justify his selection and tactical philosophies after almost a year in the job that brought four defeats and a draw in his previous five contests with the big southern hemisphere sides but he would have enjoyed the newspapers with his breakfast on Sunday.
One Chris Ashton swallow dive does not make a summer of course and it is not all positive. Those Wallaby and Springbok losses coupled with France’s victories over Australia and Argentina ensured England go into Monday’s World Cup draw in the second tier of seeds, potentially producing a far harder route to the final.
However, on the form they showed on Saturday it is England that everyone else will be wanting to avoid.
The statistics surrounding the game put the result in context but even they do not do justice to the all-round quality of England’s performance.
New Zealand had won their last nine games against England, had not lost a European tour game for 10 years and were three games away from matching the 1987-90 All Blacks’ record 23-game unbeaten run.
England had won only six of their previous 28 games against the “big three” while the best of their previous six wins against New Zealand came 76 years ago, a 13-0 home victory.
Like the 2007 World Cup, when England came back from a 36-0 pool stage humiliation by South Africa to blow away Australia with a brilliant quarter-final display, nobody saw this one coming.
England’s players did the unthinkable - they bullied New Zealand. Where they had been hesitant and disorganised against Australia it was the men in white thundering into the breakdown and forcing the All Blacks into making probably more errors in 80 minutes than they had made throughout their entire remarkable year.
Lancaster’s selections were justified as the midfield duo of Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi showed that they are more than just bash and smash merchants. Both scored superb breakaway tries and Tuilagi, who previously passed about as often as Halley’s Comet, created two scores with a combination of hard running and deft delivery.
Everyone knew that Owen Farrell was nerveless and he duly kicked England into a 15-0 lead but he also showed a new side to his game, on the international stage at least, with some cleverly delayed distribution that finally allowed runners onto the ball at pace.
With Freddie Burns coming off the bench to replace him for one of the more memorable debuts and George Ford and even Danny Cipriani waiting in the wings, Toby Flood’s future suddenly looks in doubt. Certainly it is hard to see Flood, who started the previous three tests before suffering a toe injury, running the show in 2015.
The bulk of Saturday’s team are likely to be involved though as, with only 206 caps in the starting XV and with prop Dan Cole the only man to have 30 to his name, they are clearly there for the long haul.
“It’s a young team but we should be sat here in seven, eight or nine years with the same guys playing for us and we’ll be the ones with 700, 800 caps,” Lancaster said after Saturday’s success.
Before that win few, if any, England players would have threatened a place in a world XV but one or two could now at least turn up for the trials without embarrassment.
Tom Wood was immense at blindside flanker, bringing the snarling aggression and brick-wall tackling that made him Lancaster’s likely first captain before a foot injury put his international career on the back burner for almost a year.
Tuilagi was massively destructive and New Zealand’s concern about him created space and time for others, while Ashton finally got the try his selfless and intelligent running lines have deserved.
Hard-hitting lock Courtney Lawes played only a bit part on Saturday after an injury absence but his combination with the impressive Joe Launchbury, who made his first start against South Africa, could be the long-term second-row solution.
Captain Chris Robshaw seems to have the respect of team mates and opponents alike and in his workrate and commitment he certainly leads by example. He will have learned some valuable lessons in pressurised decision-making too after his much-criticised penalty options against Australia and South Africa.
The key for England of course is to back up Saturday’s performance.
Next stop is the Six Nations, when with three home games including France on Feb. 23, they should expect to be challenging for the title.
The All Blacks, Australia and Argentina come calling again in a year and Lancaster will get the perfect barometer of progress in 2014 with a three-test tour of New Zealand. (Editing by Josh Reich)