England's ongoing tour to New Zealand was always about showing they are a team who are in with a realistic chance of winning next year’s Rugby World Cup.
To that end they are shaping up well, despite having lost a well-contested first Test 20-15 to the world champions in Auckland.
One of the good things about Stuart Lancaster’s regime is that he is using his deep knowledge of England’s playing strength to make some sensible decisions. England now have got great depth at that very top level for the first time, and that was evident on Saturday when a supposedly weakened line-up went out and played the way they did.
It is a double-edged sword because he has given himself all sorts of selection dilemmas for the second test in Dunedin this Saturday, for which the players of Northampton and Saracens are now available after their epic Premiership final.
Does he keep Ben Morgan in or go for Billy Vunipola at No 8?
Morgan had a fantastic game at Eden Park. He was absolutely sensational and, for me, he has to keep the shirt. Freddie Burns at fly-half did not look out of place. He kicked very well, which is what you expect from an international-class fly-half, and did his cause for retention no harm at all despite the likes of Owen Farrell and Stephen Myler coming back into the equation this weekend.
Despite a difficult club season he helped create a positive team performance. He was in charge and controlling things, although I would welcome the return of Danny Care at scrum-half because Ben Youngs is not currently able to make things tick in the same way. Davey Wilson, by his recent standards, had a shocker in the loose, but in the crucial scrummaging area he was exemplary alongside Joe Marler and Rob Webber. Geoff Parling slotted back into the second row as if he had never been away – remarkable considering he missed most of the season through injury.
New Zealand will get better, despite being a little ring-rusty. They showed they have still got that clinical edge to go for 80 minutes and find a way to win.
England were captained magnificently by Chris Robshaw who once again stood up to be counted. Looking at the stats he was right up there in every area. Mike Brown has that bit of dog and competitive edge at full-back, and that is what this group are beginning to develop – a deep seated self-belief.
England are now a squad that can compete with the very best, demonstrated by the fact they were right in it until the death against the best team on the planet.
With the Northampton and Sarries contingent now available Lancaster has some big calls, but the guys who performed so well last weekend deserve another shout. That will keep everyone on their toes, and means they can then go to their bench later on and bring on what you might call the ‘A-game’ with the likes of Dylan Hartley, et al.
That will cause the All Blacks some problems, and in the past the ability to use your bench in that way has always been an advantage New Zealand have had over everybody else. If Lancaster parachutes the whole Saints and Saracens group into the starting XV I don’t feel it would be fair on those who did so well last time out. They don’t deserve that, but the great thing is they have options.
Were Burns to get another start I don’t think anyone could complain. He got a quick game going, and kicked his goals under a lot of pressure. Let him have another crack, and send out the message if guys go out and perform then they will be rewarded for it.
Morgan was a perfect example of that in the back row, and with Vunipola now available they have a ready-made impact sub waiting to make his mark. It is a great position to be in, and in Lancaster’s shoes I would go with most of last weekend’s starting XV before drip-feeding the other guys in as the match goes on.
From New Zealand’s perspective they will of course try to ramp up the intensity. They will not have liked being dictated to in the manner that they were for large parts of the opening test, so there will be an extra bite and an extra level to their ferocity. They will be hitting rucks and mauls with greater intensity. Their full-back Israel Dagg has been a real inspiration in recent years with his attacking play from the back, but they brought him off in Auckland.
It may be they are just a little rusty as a unit with it being their first international for a while, and they have the capacity to improve. England have done particularly well at the set pieces, and this is where they have got to make it on Saturday.
Recent results show that this will be another close and intense encounter. That degree of uncertainty for spectators when it comes to the result is what makes it so interesting, and I was on the edge of my seat at times just wondering which side was going to make the breakthrough.
Another point to acknowledge is it is a three-test series rather than a one-off international which adds a different dimension, and leaves the whole thing nicely poised.
There are extra incentives for both sides in winning the series, and for England there is the chance to prove to a wider audience that they are more than one-off backs-to-the-wall merchants. They deserve respect, and they are earning it.
I caught a quote from Joe Marler on one of the websites saying he used to be intimidated playing against the All Blacks, but that he now relishes the challenge and thinks they can do it.
That mindset is essential, and seems symptomatic of where England are right now.