England back in the hunt after making progress on South Africa safari | Robert Kitson

Stuart Lancaster's squad return from the southern hemisphere with a quiet sense of optimism after gaining more succour than the scoreboard suggests

Test victories may have been in short supply but England's encouraging finish to their South Africa tour was significant on several levels. As the players headed for home the rancour of last autumn's World Cup seemed a distant memory, replaced by a quiet sense of optimism. While England may not have won the series, they have gained more succour from their African safari than the scoreboard suggests.

If nothing else, the draw on Saturday in Port Elizabeth – only the second drawn Test England have played in since 1997 – showed the rekindled spirit in the squad, for which Stuart Lancaster deserves considerable credit. Dragging English rugby out of the gutter and re-establishing a culture of musketeering positivity took some doing, even if the team's on-field development remains a work in progress.

Lancaster and the Rugby Football Union's chief executive, Ian Ritchie, know defining days still await, not least in the November Tests at Twickenham which will decide whether England finish in the top four of the International Rugby Board's world rankings and avoid a potentially sticky pool draw at the 2015 World Cup. A poor autumn series against Fiji, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, on the other hand, would revive the uncomfortable issues this tour has partially deflected.

In no particular order England still need to find more shape in attack, more composure at key moments and more gainline penetration before they can aspire to the clinical excellence New Zealand displayed against Ireland at the weekend. When the Lions squad is announced next year, it may be that no more than half a dozen Englishmen feature. No one is yet claiming the red rose is suddenly rampant again in terms of world-class game-breakers.

On the plus side, Lancaster can now build from more solid foundations. This is already a stronger team than the apparent sum of its parts. Apart from a disastrous first-half spell in the second Test, the tourists were doggedly competitive in a daunting environment. As Lancaster rightly pointed out before heading to the airport, the effort on Saturday demanded particular character. "We could have used every excuse not to put in a performance but we didn't. We rolled up our sleeves, were fighting to the end and could have edged it. The five games on this tour have been a huge benefit for English rugby."

He went on to mention one or two midweekers who have enhanced their causes. The Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and the Gloucester flier Jonny May are significantly closer to a full cap than they were three weeks ago, while the Test debutants Tom Johnson, Thomas Waldrom, Joe Marler, Jonathan Joseph and Alex Goode did enough to merit further involvement. "We can see a slight changing of the guard taking place," said Lancaster, who will announce his elite player and Saxons squads for 2012‑13 in early July and stage a three-day training camp in Loughborough starting on 6 August.

Tom Wood, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes are set to be included regardless of fitness concerns, leaving a handful – among them Phil Dowson, David Strettle, Lee Mears and Paul Doran-Jones – to sweat on the management's deliberations. The surname Farrell will also be on many lips this summer, both in a playing and a coaching context. Lancaster accepts he has been "stretched" time-wise on this tour and the return of Andy Farrell this summer, having resigned as Saracens' head coach, seems almost certain.

It would also be no surprise if the interim backs coach, Mike Catt, stays involved. At some stage, either way, England are going to have to re-address the vexed issue of their midfield, specifically how best to accommodate Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi. Both are still very young men but Farrell, as yet, is not a game-shaping Test fly-half and Tuilagi needs to add some subtler strings to his powerful bow. "We've got to be a bit more creative in attack and test teams a little bit more," said James Haskell, the flanker who would love to remain a part of England's future.

Had England been slightly calmer and craftier in the closing moments on Saturday they might well have secured victory, Farrell twice attempting premature drop‑goals when a couple more forward drives were called for. Next time, perhaps. A break will do everyone good – although Haskell is off back to New Zealand for two gentle Super 15 fixtures against the Chiefs and the Reds – and Lancaster believes this trip has healed English rugby's self‑esteem.

"The players have been fantastic ambassadors for their country. To a man I could not fault their attitude. There is no player with a god-given right to the shirt and they respect that. The next step now is to get the detail right in terms of how we make the players world class in between events, how we can help them physically, tactically and mentally." England, in other words, believe there is plenty more to come.


Robert Kitson

The GuardianTramp

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