If Ashton and Slade fire, England Rugby can ‘dare to dream’

If Ashton and Slade fire, England Rugby can 'dare to dream'
BAGSHOT, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 06: Henry Slade (front) and team mates look on during an England training session at Pennyhill Park on November 6, 2018 in Bagshot, England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

England versus the All Blacks has been long overdue. And despite Eddie Jones’ men having a dismal 2018 for England Rugby thus far, they can go into this eagerly awaited clash with some hope.

England are heavy underdogs, which will mean the pressure valve which has encased English rugby since their disastrous 2018 Six Nations campaign, may be partly released this weekend. Especially, if players like Chris Ashton and Henry Slade can do their best and believe in their abilities.

The hosts have to take this chance with both hands and show what they can perform with the ball – instead of without it – as was the case last week. If they have to defend as they did for the first 40 minutes against South Africa, New Zealand will win convincingly.

England cannot withstand an All Blacks barrage, so the hosts must ‘dare to dream’ and to unshackle their attack, to mirror the success of 2012.

Ashton can ignite England’s flailing attack

The reintegration of Chris Ashton into the England team is a positive move by Eddie Jones. The running lines on-and-off the ball that Ashton uses are like no other winger in the International game.

England have to score tries on Saturday as they will not beat New Zealand from the kicking tee alone. Ashton is one man who can score from anywhere, so his integration in attack; and counter-attack, will be fundamental to any success this current team has.

The question is, whether England’s backs can provide Ashton and May with enough quality ball to eek out an opportunity or two? And that is where Henry Slade emerges as a vital cog for England Rugby on Saturday.

Slade has to step up, alongside Farrell

In reality, everyone in the England team has to play well this Saturday afternoon. Yet if England are to seriously challenge New Zealand, it will mean that the backs have to fire.

Henry Slade has been solid so far, and showed glimpses of what he could do against the Springboks last weekend. He has all the tools to be a top class player for England and his ability to make breaks and offload in the tackle now needs to come out at this level.

Slade is the kind of player who can create a yard or two for England’s back three. He will want to use ball-in-hand and set play to create doubt in the tough All Blacks defence. Demonstrate the attacking mindset that Slade utilizes well for the Exeter Chiefs.

And from Eddie Jones’ perspective, hopefully, that demonstration will be evident this Saturday afternoon at the home of England Rugby.

Mercer’s omission puts pressure on England Rugby backrow

One is loathed to constantly criticize Eddie Jones’ selection policy, especially after a highly promising victory over the Springboks. However, the non-selection of Zak Mercer in the squad – let alone the starting XV – is an extraordinary decision.

Mercer was excellent against South Africa when he came on for the stricken Tom Curry in the second half. His footwork and ability to get over the gainline would have been hugely useful for England against the All Blacks.

In saying that, England’s backrow toiled hard last week and Mark Wilson in particular deserved all the plaudits that came his way. That said, they were part of an England pack that was second best for long periods of that game, as the more muscular Springbok forwards won the collisions and took control.

So this week, Messrs Underhill, Wilson and Shields have to offer more in their ball carrying and not just ‘tackle themselves to a standstill’. They are up against one of the best backrows in the world; led by the imperious Kieran Read, so this is a massive test of England’s backrow credentials.

England’s Brad Shields (C) jumps to catch the ball alongside Sam Underhill (L) during an England Rugby team training session at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, on November 10. (Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

And a focus will be on the familiarity with the New Zealand player’s style, which the former-Hurricanes skipper can bring.

Shields has to put emotion aside and justify his selection

Brad Shields; although industrious against the Springboks, is fortunate to retain his starting spot. In what has been a troubled introduction to English rugby, Shields has yet to convince in either the Wasps or England jumpers.

There is no questioning his commitment and workrate but Shields has to do more when taking the ball up. Defensively, he went too high on the excellent Damian de Allende. That allowed the Springboks to make precious yards that eventually led to the only try of the game last weekend.

This weekend – against players he is far more familiar with than any other England Rugby player – requires Shields to step-up in his ball carrying. And vitally in his first clash against the nation that gave him his rugby-education, he will need to take the emotion out of the occasion. Going up against his mates, fans will want him to be fully committed. To be a key link, in an attacking England backrow.

All Blacks’ finishing ability make them outright favourites

The All Blacks look good and they have so much talent at their disposal that they tend to recover from the rare defeats that come their way. Four losses in six years proved that alone – but they have been stung in 2018.

For the first time, in a long while, South Africa exposed some vulnerability during The Rugby Championship on a seemingly impregnable All Blacks’ defence. The Springboks ran the ball from everywhere in Wellington shocking New Zealand with their audacious flair. They should have won in Pretoria as well [to be honest] but the All Blacks showed why they are the premier team in world rugby by not panicking. Relying on their superstar talent from the bench, to see them home in the last minutes.

Put simply, New Zealand are the best team in the world over the full 80 minutes. Finishing off games better than any other nation. It means England will have to play well for all 80 minutes, if they can dream of beating the three-time World Champions.

England can dare to dream at Twickenham

The victory in 2012 was not a fluke by Stuart Lancaster’s men. His team came together beautifully on that Saturday, with the forward’s playing with brutal intensity and the backs being razor sharp.

(L-R) Alex Goode, Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt and Mako Vunipola of England Rugby pose with the Sir Edmund Hillary Shield after the match between England and New Zealand on December 1, 2012 . (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images,)

Saturday’s version of England look like a team in transition, although injuries have had a lot to do with their current predicament. It’s a big if but, England Rugby does have a tiny glimpse of an opportunity.

Line speed and intensity in everything they do, will have to be several notches higher than what we have seen so far in 2018.

England do have the players to trouble New Zealand yet, whether they can get everyone playing at the required level is an entirely different proposition. It needs England’s pack to get parity up front and that means a functioning lineout and a steady scrum.

England’s backrow will have to make dents with the ball as well as in the tackle. The one-on-one match-ups could be a pub conversation in itself;

  • Maro Itoje will have to have a blinder against arguably the best player in the world, Brodie Retallick
  • Like in 2012, Youngs and Farrell have to dominate their illustrious counterparts
  • Henry Slade and Te’o have to punch holes in the All Blacks midfield, to open up the game
  • Chris Ashton and Jonny May have to show off their sorcery in attack.

Too many if’s and but’s still exist though. For mine, I expect England to push New Zealand close yet, the side will tire in the final 15 minutes. As commonly occurs, it allows the All Blacks to come in the final quarter. That might see the visitors walk off Twickenham winners, through by a couple of scores.

A real fight is on the cards, and it makes for a true rugby feast this weekend.

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England v New Zealand – Twickenham. Saturday, November 10

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