Roger Uttley: New Zealand experience will serve England well

Ex-England captain Roger Uttley says Stuart Lancaster's side have benefited from their tour to New Zealand, regardless of results

Getty Images Manu Tuilagi of England off loads the ball to set up a try for Chris Ashton during the International Test Match
Manu Tuilagi of England off loads the ball to set up a try for Chris Ashton during the International Test Match

Despite two defeats, the experience England have gained on their tour to New Zealand will serve them very well in tomorrow’s third Test, and in the build-up to next year’s home World Cup.

They will certainly be competitive, and the difference between winning and losing is very small.

England have just got to be able to cope with the intensity the All Blacks are able to bring to the game when they get the bit between their teeth in Hamilton, and to finish off when we have those pressure situations near to the opposition line.

We are beginning to see that, and the absence of Conrad Smith for the hosts will make a big difference given the fantastic job he does for them in the midfield.

Last Saturday’s one-point loss in Dunedin was ultimately disappointing, but nobody realistically expected England to win the series. The fact they played as well as they did for as long as they did bodes well for the future, and the manner in which they coped with Owen Farrell’s sin-binning was also encouraging.

At one point during that third quarter it felt like the All Blacks might run amok, but England stuck in, defended magnificently and made life difficult.

We were always under pressure, but managed to resist it. In past tours New Zealand might have strolled away in that situation, but to claw back to within a point showed how competitive this team now is.

They are certainly improving and have a rock-solid attitude – the thing they need to do now is to finish like the world champions. There needs to be more support runners when guys are making breaks, but there are lots of positive signs.

Freddie Burns will be champing at the bit to demonstrate his first-Test performance was no fluke, and Danny Cipriani being on the bench is positive. Stephen Myler has been fantastic for Northampton, but whether or not he has that little bit of extra I am not really sure.

Cipriani certainly does, and that time on the ball is so important in such a key decision-making role. He draws defending players towards him and puts team-mates into space with his vision. His goal-kicking has also been excellent on this tour, and he is covering the bases from that perspective.

If the forwards can maintain their physical approach, keeping the basics working well, then they have a chance.

I am all in favour of an offloading game, but against these boys you will be made to pay if you get it wrong.

England lost the plot a little bit last weekend by playing from too deep, too often. You are inevitably going to get turned over at some stage if you play like that, and the best counter-attackers in the world will make you pay.

I would like us to get down into the corners a bit more this weekend and stay down there, really squeezing the life out of the All Blacks. Make them try to play their way out, and they will become equally susceptible to turnovers with the pace England have to burn out wide.

Chris Ashton showed from the bench in Dunedin that he can latch on in support when we manage to break, and he has got the vision to anticipate where things are going to happen.

One selection which got a lot of people talking last weekend was Manu Tuilagi on the wing, and he did relatively well there. He never got exposed in any way because he is a talented footballer, but the real problem was that his strengths were not utilised enough.

That was a pity, and Stuart Lancaster still has that midfield conundrum to solve in terms of whether or not he ultimately pairs Tuilagi with Kyle Eastmond, who has by no means let himself down on this tour.

We saw encouraging signs of the depth in the squad on Tuesday in convincingly beating the Crusaders in Christchurch. The strength is definitely there, and it is good to see midweek tour games back on the agenda even though it means taking a bigger party to cope with the schedule of matches.

England can do that now, and to put 30-odd points on one of the top Super 15 teams was a really good effort. The likes of Cipriani and James Haskell proved you can come back from the wilderness and contribute to the cause, even when things have veered off the rails in your past.

On the club front, I was saddened to see another good young local player leaving Newcastle Falcons, with the news that Joel Hodgson has signed for the Premiership champions, Northampton.

I think he will do very well there under the management of guys like Alex King and Jim Mallinder, and it is a great move for him. I am just disappointed the Falcons could not find room for him, because he has that bit of star quality.

Away from domestic matters, I am currently over in Ireland as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations of the 1974 Lions, with a dinner in Belfast last night and another in Dublin tomorrow raising much-needed funds for rugby’s charity, the Wooden Spoon.

It is great meeting up with the guys again and reminiscing about our exploits in South Africa, but I have to bear in mind I am cycling 1,000km in seven days next week as part of the ‘Ride of the Lions’ charity bike ride!

Details of that, in aid of a great cause, are on www.rideofthelions.co.uk .

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