Home side in high spirits after pushing the All Blacks in their Test at the weekend.
Two moments at either end of England’s spirited 30-22 loss to world champions New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday demonstrated the gap Stuart Lancaster’s men must close if they are to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on home soil in two years’ time.
The first came inside two minutes when New Zealand’s Kieran Read delivered a delightful inside pass, which took out three covering England defenders, to Julian Savea for the first of the All Blacks’ three tries.
The second was in the 64th minute when centre Ma’a Nonu produced a deft pass out of the tackle that sent Savea in for his second try.
Not only did England’s backs fail to equal Nonu’s effort, they didn’t produce a piece of handling skill to rival that of No 8 Read.
By contrast, their lone try of the match came when lock Joe Launchbury pounced on a ball that came loose from a scrum five metres from New Zealand’s line.
England, 14 points down after just 17 minutes, saw their pack perform heroically.
And they certainly had the means to make sure the penalties their forwards won turned into scoreboard pressure, with fly-half Owen Farrell kicking England into an improbable 22-20 lead heading into the final quarter.
But the over-riding feeling as England ended a November campaign which produced wins over Australia and Argentina was they needed more from their backs if they were to stand a real chance of winning a second global title to set alongside their 2003 World Cup triumph.
Admittedly, England coach Lancaster was without injured first-choice centres Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt, both of whom scored tries in England’s shock 38-21 win over the All Blacks at Twickenham last year.
He also was deprived of crocked wings Marland Yarde and Christian Wade.
“If you took four players out of the All Blacks team and had new combinations working together it would be challenging for them too,” insisted Lancaster following a November series where Saracens centre Joel Tomkins became the latest former rugby league star, with the glaring exception of Jason Robinson, to struggle in an England union shirt.
England have rarely been renowned for the quality of their back-line but the best Red Rose sides of recent times have contained at least one assured playmaker and finisher, be it Jeremy Guscott and Rory Underwood in the 1990s or Will Greenwood and Robinson in the World Cup-winning team.
Indeed the player England have struggled most to replace since 2003 is not goalkicking ace Jonny Wilkinson, who has a worthy successor in Farrell, but ball-playing centre Greenwood.
Hopes remain that Billy Twelvetrees, in the England side on Saturday, could be that player but the jury remains out on whether the Gloucester midfielder can deliver on the world stage.
But there are deeper issues at stake than just picking one player or another as Stuart Barnes, a ‘running’ fly-half restricted to just 10 England caps in the 1980s and 1990s by ‘kicking’ No 10 Rob Andrew, pointed out in his Sunday Times column.
“England are over-organised…They don’t seek the space and they certainly don’t encourage (players) to see what is in front of them.
“Until such liberty to indulge in a game where tries are treated like gods is allowed, we (England) will strive to utilise the power of a pack that is gathering in intensity but will be let down by a failure to make and finish chances.”
There was a lesson too for England in the way All Blacks coach Steve Hansen underplayed Nonu’s contribution to Savea’s decisive second score that ensured the All Blacks made it 13 wins out of 13 this year.
“When you play like we do every week, those things are happening every week,” Hansen said.
“So they are not that ‘wow’ but what is important about that offload is that he (Nonu) wasn’t trying to do something under pressure he hadn’t done before.
“It wasn’t a new thing. It was just natural — ‘it’s on, so I’ll pass it’ and that’s what he did.”