England have reason to be optimistic following the Autumn Internationals – here are some of my own thoughts after three busy weekends at Twickenham.
The game against Australia was the culmination of a series of events to mark the tenth anniversary of England winning the Rugby World Cup starting with a Legends game on the Thursday and a dinner on the Friday. On Saturday the 2003 England squad were at lunch before the game but there were some bleary eyes indicating that the previous two nights had taken their toll but they all received rapturous applause when they paraded the Webb Ellis Trophy around the ground at half-time.
Perhaps that was what the current England squad needed being 6-13 down after a dour first half against Australia, as the game sparked into life and they dominated to score two converted tries for a much-needed 20-13 win.
Pictures from England v Australia
The game against Argentina was similar except it was in the first half that England dominated to lead 24-6 at the break. An frankly forgettable second half was boosted right at the end with a try by Ben Morgan but the 31-12 win gave England two wins out of two.
Eastern Counties experimented with car-park hospitality at the game offering anyone from the area free wine and beer in the West Car Park between 12:30 and 2pm. It couldn’t be called an unqualified success, the rain not helping us much coupled with people not being able to find where we were and others not realising we were there. However, those that did appear appreciated the gesture and we have committed to do it again at the England v Wales Six Nations game in 2014.
At both these games the talk was about the big one; the match against New Zealand. I arrived at Twickenham on the Thursday before as I had a meetings that day and Friday and there was already a buzz around the stadium and the RFU offices; could England repeat the win of a year ago? The atmosphere in the stadium was passionate with England supporters singing Swing Low! while New Zealand performed the Haka. The game itself didn’t disappoint with England coming from 17-3 down to take the lead before a moment of magic by Nonu saw the All Blacks win a thrilling game. I had been saying during the week before that this game was less about the result and more about the performance and that if England lost by less than 10 points then I would be happy. I wasn’t just happy, but I, along with many other England supporters, believe that Stuart Lancaster’s squad is going to mount a serious challenge in 2015 and is one of three, maybe four, countries that can win the World Cup.
At the post-match dinner it was clear that New Zealand were out for revenge whatever you may have read in the press before the game. In his speech Richie McCaw acknowledged how hurt the players were by last year’s defeat and how relieved they all were to avenge it. All the speeches talked about the deep respect the players and management on either side have for each other and the three match series in New Zealand in June will show how much further England will have developed having shown that they are very much a better team than last season.
Unfortunately the first test will see England without players that will have competed in the Premiership Final a week earlier which shows how congested the elite season is becoming. Before that they will have to prove themselves in the Six Nations, the first five of the 20 games England have left until the 2015 Rugby World Cup kicks off.
A personal November highlight for me was going to see the newly refurbished changing rooms at Twickenham. The whole experience for players is to motivate and to help them understand their place in the game. Each peg has their name and their international player number, e.g. Ben Youngs is the 1,322nd player to have represented England Rugby. Below that are names of other notable players who have played for England in that position, so under Tom Youngs’ name are the likes of Steve Thompson, Brian Moore and Peter Wheeler, reminding them of the greats they are following and that eventually someone else will take their place.
Rugby’s Core Values of Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Respect hang above the changing area and there is a huge screen for half-time analysis. The management and back-room team have there own changing room and the medical and bath areas have all been revamped. The away team changing room has also had a makeover but as one Australian player pointed out, there is an awful lot of white!
What impressed me most was the tunnel to the pitch where is written the slogan ‘Hundreds before you, Thousands around you, Millions behind you’ And if that wasn’t humbling enough there are Twitter messages from England fans all over the walls. I was particularly proud to see a tweet from @Marketing_Jan aka Jan Ballard from Woodbridge RFC who has worked tirelessly for her club and travels the world with husband Simon supporting England – she thoroughly deserves for her message to be one of those the players see before they walk onto the Twickenham turf.
Click here for pictures
England Rugby is in a good place and it seems that it will only get better for players and supporters alike.