James Haskell has come out fighting against England's rugby critics and has challenged them to give Martin Johnson's side at least a year before making any final judgement. The Wasps flanker was one of the few England players, along with Nick Easter and Danny Care, to enhance his reputation in the 42-6 defeat by South Africa at Twickenham.
Having lost to Australia the previous weekend, England now face the task on Saturday of trying to beat New Zealand, regarded as the best team in the world, to avoid an autumn whitewash by the southern hemisphere giants. Yet Haskell believes team manager Johnson has assembled a squad of players who will prove the doubters wrong. Haskell, in answer to accusations that the current squad were not up to the job, said: "We knew this was going to be a turbulent autumn internationals.
"We're playing against the best teams in the world and we're a new side. I'm not a big fan of making excuses. I hate doing it. "But I think we do have something special here. We've got a great group of players. They are the best available and we'll keep going forward. "We almost scored some good points, all it took was one pass that didn't go our way and that comes when you are a seasoned side. Rome wasn't built in a day and we are going to keep progressing."
Haskell believes Johnson should stick to the same game plan against New Zealand, who boast brilliant fly-half Dan Carter and back row forward Ritchie McCaw and who beat Wales 29-9 with a convincing second-half performance on Saturday evening. Haskell said: "I'm looking forward to playing against New Zealand and slowly building. "People are going to try to pick holes but we are a collective here. We are building to something.
"We are going to go away and work. You have got to take your knocks. "But we have got to have confidence in what we are trying to achieve and faith in the game plan that the coaches have put together and move forward." Haskell also confirmed the team's support for clubmate and fly-half Danny Cipriani, whose charged-down kick led to South Africa's first try on Saturday. He even insisted that several England players had the measure of their Springbok counterparts.
"I rate Danny very highly," said Haskell. "He's a great player. "The whole team were under pressure. We created a lot of opportunities that could have been turned into tries but South Africa were able to capitalise on errors and turn them into points. "But the passion was there, the intensity was there and the scoreline was flattering to South Africa. Certain [England] individuals had the better of their opposition."
Wales wind up their autumn Test schedule on Saturday still seeking a victory captain Ryan Jones believes will take his team "to the next level". New Zealand's success at the Millennium Stadium means Wales have now lost 30 out of 33 games against Tri Nations opposition since rugby union's professional era dawned 13 years ago. Australia are next up, with Wales needing to salvage the November series by repeating their 2005 success over the Wallabies.
And it would prove the perfect send-off into this season's Six Nations. Wales launch their title defence against Scotland at Murrayfield on Feb 8. Reflecting on Wales's fourth southern hemisphere failure in five months, Jones said: "If we can pick up on some of the tactical areas, then I think we can get closer to these sides. "Beating one of the southern hemisphere teams will take us to the next level.
"We have to move on, and the next game has to be our priority. If we can polish up a few things, we will get closer and closer." * PA Sport