Exclusive to Rugby Unplugged's 2019 Guinness Six Nations coverage, we bring you weekly analysis every Tuesday on Eddie Jones' England Rugby, from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.
Aviva Stadium - Saturday 02 February 2019
KO: 16:45 HT: 10-17 Att: 51,700
Referee: Jérôme Garcès
T: Healy, Cooney C: Sexton (2) P: Sexton (2)
T: May, Daly, Slade (2) C: Farrell (3) P: Farrell (2) Curry
IN one of the most titanic rugby clashes for years, Dublin’s Fields of Athenry became England’s own Field of Dreams as the Rose walked away from the Aviva Stadium with a remarkable four try bonus on Saturday.
The match was breathtaking; from moment one, England’s hits, clashes, tackles and collisions vacillated between irresistible forces and unstoppable objects as every one of Newton’s Laws of Physics were tested, and indeed, proven.
You might argue that it was a win based upon commitment and determination and you’d have a case. You could suggest it was an opportune victory against a notoriously slow starting Irish side and few would contest that, but the truth would be the foundation of this result was the meticulous planning and execution of that plan.
Let’s examine the evidence.
In previous recent trips to Ireland, England had been smashed in the air, the contact and set piece. Each of those times they’d gone in as favourites, looking to secure silverware, and each time, the ultimate win alluded them.
But this game was very different; informed by the previous performances, England turned up with the view that to win, they had to out-Ireland the Irish themselves, with pinpoint kicking, huge gainline aggression and speed of ruck.
The first moment of the game itself was a microcosm of the result- a pinpoint kick-off deep from Farrell was always going to be cleared by Murray to touch; at this moment, few realised it but England hooker Jamie George was already on the touchline at this moment, with a new ball ready to throw to prevent Ireland from even thinking. It was the complete definition of the game strategy that followed and without doubt, pre-planned to the last detail.
What can be said of England? Well, it was a win based upon a formidable forward performance; whilst Mako Vunipola was crowned Man of the Match, any one of the pack, (especially the immense Cumbrian flanker Mark Wilson, who completed an England record 27 tackles in a Six Nations game together with three turnovers and three lineout wins) would have been apt recipients.
The back line were lethal in the space they enjoyed. The decision making was a joy to behold and the outcomes were exceptional, with deep miss passing from mercurial Henry Slade and Owen Farrell that opened up Ireland’s territory in a way that the Brexit debate could only dream of.
Ireland won’t panic. Their injury list is such that any changes will be limited only to replacing the walking wounded, but with their lock stocks at an all time low, and a lot of players coming back from rest and injury, they will need to catapult that performance to new levels if they’re to overcome an impressive and attacking Scotland on Saturday.
Over in Paris, France conspired to play one of their best and worst halves of rugby all in one game as they hosted Wales. Their first half was exceptional and had everything. Pace, power and sublime offloads and passing in torrential Parisian rain, and only errors and perhaps a lack of fitness could be blamed for their appalling last 40 minutes.
Moving on to Twickenham on Sunday, complacency is England’s biggest enemy; if France travel with their first half in their minds, then no side in the world will fully contain that sort of performance and Les Bleus will match any team around in terms of physicality.
England need to plan to defeat them with the same level of detail shown in Dublin. Use short fast two-man rucks to move a massive pack around; employ Manu and Big Billy to smash into the Lopez/Fofana axis and, against a side that habitually play their wingers high (as Ireland do) use the pinpoint kicking of the half-backs to hit the grass in the wide channels, moving the French defence into areas they don’t want to be.
France will believe. They’ll come ready to pulverise England and the opening ten minutes are make and break for both sides. Whoever gets the physical dominance (and boy, will this be physical) will win the game, and perhaps, given the power in both teams, win by a substantial margin.
In the final analysis, it’s hard to believe that England won’t succeed, but based upon the early showing in Paris, it’s going to be a match up of gladiatorial proportions.
Bring it on!
Twickenham Stadium - Sunday 10 February 2019
KO: 15:00 HT: 30-8 Att: 82,000
T: May (3), Slade, PT, Farrell C: Farrell (3) P: Farrell (2)
T: Penaud P: Parra Fickou
IN a compelling performance, England’s young guns disposed of France in style at Twickenham as the home team romped home in a percussive display winning 44-8.
Julie Andrews once sagely observed that the beginning was a ‘very good place to start’ and based upon England’s last few performances, nothing could resonate more with this young team as the electric backline combined to destroy France’s hopes after only 66 seconds of play.
However, after a masterful first half display, and with the game over, England were less impressive and France rallied in an subdued second half as their bench showed more willingness to attack than their starting line-up.
Whilst Jonny May, Elliot Daly and Henry Slade will rightly grab the headlines, this was a victory forged by the outstanding English back row and half-back combinations. Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs’ pinpoint kicking and passing were irresistible whilst Mark Wilson, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola were absolutely unmoveable in defence.
Farrell’s skill set is fast becoming the equal, if not the better, of his illustrious predecessor, Jonny Wilkinson. His depth and accuracy of pass, variety of kicks and sheer relentlessness in keeping the pressure on his opponents is something of rare quality. To see opportunity is one thing, but to consistently execute these deep mispasses under rush defence pressure is something only the very few have ever been able to do. He is fast becoming England’s own Dan Carter and his try scoring record displays there’s more to his game than pure bosh.
Rather unsurprisingly, England’s backrow has never quite been in the league of the halcyon days of Hill, Back and Dallaglio for many years now. In a 1997 November Test v the All Blacks, Clive Woodward ended up with his seven at six, his six at eight and a new seven on the pitch in Neil Back. No-one would ever have chosen the combination, yet it became the finest back row Test Rugby has ever seen, playing 49 tests together and losing only seven, due to its mobility and intellect.
Roll the clock forward 15 years and due to the level of injury and unavailability, Mark Wilson and Tom Curry saw themselves thrust into action against the Springboks in November as 4th choice number 8 and 3rd choice openside respectively. Somehow, like the Holy Trinity, the combination gelled, and gelled very quickly, with Wilson putting in four November performances that made him the Man of the November Series, and were of such technical quality that comparisons were already being made with Hill and Dallaglio. Meanwhile, Curry’s abrasive impact in 2019 has been likened to those of former greats Winterbottom and Back. Praise indeed.
The keys here are balance and pace. With big Billy in the middle of them, you have Wilson’s accuracy and mobility, Curry’s dog and commitment in rucks and BV’s huge carries. The modern back row is not about shirt numbers, but more so about skill blends and this accidental combination has all of those talents and more, and in Wilson, they’ve found the natural leader the pack have so desperately needed for three years. Put simply, in six tests, he’s become England’s heartbeat.
You only have to see the match stats to note that, between them in two Six Nations tests, England’s new flankers have made a whopping 100 tackles between them. To put that into perspective, it’s more than the entire French starting pack have made in their first two tests.
These players set the tone for England’s wonderful man-watching rush defence, a defence based upon speed and pressure in the opposition faces, and a method that will not work without pace in the back row and midfield.
This incessant pressure creates space for those outside. Teams are so busy committing numbers to secure their own ball that once they’re turned over (they will be!) England, who commit one or two maximum to the jackal, will inevitably have extra players in the wide channel and a simple kick or mispass will create an overlap or numerical advantage.
Are England the finished article? Not a chance. Based upon the Six Nations alone, Plan A has worked in both games and at no point yet have we quite seen the multi-phase wave attacking that would punctuate the strategies of the All Blacks. That isn’t to say it’s not there, it just hasn’t happened quite yet.
As the England Bus moves onto Cardiff in a fortnight, complacency and the untested Plan B are England’s only threats.
The physicality, line out and scrum will strangle Wales, but their rugby IQ, sheer commitment and belief will present England with an altogether new set of challenges.
It remains to be seen if England can overcome, but as challenges go, it’s exactly what this team needs if they’re going to get even better.
Principality Stadium - Saturday 23 February 2019
KO: 16:45 HT: 3-10 Att: tbc
Referee: Jaco Peyper
T: Hill, Adams C: Biggar P: Anscombe (3)
T: Curry C: Farrell P: Farrell
WITH some inevitability, England’s Grand Slam hopes were derailed in Cardiff on Saturday as a compelling and passionate match saw the hosts home by 21-13.
This was a match that went to script- the Welsh script. The accuracy that personified England’s previous two matches deserted them completely as Warren Gatland proved that he can out-think one of rugby’s most celebrated intellects, that of Eddie Jones.
It was a match of big moments, hits that defined the scoreline and mistakes that informed the result.
Wales, mindful of England’s pinpoint kicking in their previous outings, played both wingers deep and used the electric pace of Gareth Davies at the base to pressure the pass and kick of his opposite number Ben Youngs. Shorn of time, Youngs’ kicks were hurried and his passes to Farrell saw his fly half kicking on the back foot, as the Welsh blitz pressured the Saracen. It was one of the few matches where he’s not been able to stamp his considerable authority and without his navigation, England were rudderless.
Let’s not denude Wales. Their backrow sealed up the gainline and the power and nous of Josh Navidi in defence was exceptional. Despite coming off second best in the set piece, Wales’ ability to close off the carries and boss the aerial battle was exceptional. Liam Williams’ command of the skies was so impressive one could only be thankful that the roof had been opened, as at times, his leaps were so high he was close to decapitating himself on the stadium steelwork.
What was most worrying for the visitors was their inability to change tactics and the point of the attack. It’s been noticeable that all of England’s moments this year have come from kicks and chases. Few phased back moves have been seen and there’s been a reliance on kick, chase and bosh, the English values Eddie loves to see.
Yet as the game unfolded, no reaction to Welsh pressure was seen or was forthcoming. No impact from the players off the bench and no use of two pacey playmakers (Dan Robson and George Ford) in a last quarter that cried out for change and impact.
Eddie will argue that events unfolded so quickly that his subs would not have had the time to make a meaningful contribution, but it could also be mooted that the best coaches are proactive and in this regard he failed to use the ammunition at his disposal.
The game moved on one seismic moment- Mark Wilson, a man who literally hasn’t made a mistake yet in his England career, dropped a pass deep in Wales’ Red Zone. Wales picked the loose ball up and 31 magnificent phases later, had scored down the other end of the stadium. It was a massive play. Had England continued their attack and scored, it was goodnight Wales. However, the error literally ignited the Dragons, opened the door wide and the rest is now history.
England won’t panic but they also need to look closely about their balance. Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi are exceptional in a physical contest but ask them to play phase running rugby and you’ll get quizzical looks. Billy made 20 runs for 50m- 2 paces forward per carry! His spark of acceleration seems not to be there and he’s a microcosm of what England are doing poorly- they are too predictable and are seeking contact, not space. The wonderful mobility of Curry and Wilson is lost without another loose forward of that mantra. Perhaps Italy is a time to examine the footballing skills of Zach Mercer, or, perhaps return Mark Wilson to the eight shirt, where he did so well in the Autumn and use Vunipola off the bench.
The back three still does not look balanced. Elliot Daly can only hope to have the catching skills of Liam Williams and Jack Nowell made a total of 8m in the entire game- not enough at this level.
It’s almost certain we’ll see an all Exeter front row too- Hepburn and Luke Cowan-Dickie are set to start with the possibility of Ben Te’o resuming the inside centre birth. If these changes are made, then whilst they are a short term selection to look at options, it gives the Rose the ability to play a wider game, with Mike Brown and Joe Cokanasiga looked certain to be given a run.
In the long term, this might be the defeat England needed so that they re-assess their attack options. It’s not a remake, it’s a tweak, and if he is going to lead England to a World Cup win, Eddie really needs to make sure the hard lessons of Cardiff are absorbed, and most of all, are never repeated again.
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 09 March 2019
KO: 16:45 HT: 31-7 Att: 82,022
Referee: Nic Berry
T: George, May, Tuilagi (2), Shields (2), Kruis, Robson C: Farrell (4), Ford (3) P: Farrell
T: Allan, Morisi C: Allan (2)
AFTER England’s failure in Cardiff a fortnight ago, the hapless Italians were always going to feel a backlash when they visited Twickenham on Saturday. The only question was the size of the backlash and with England running away 57-14 victors, one could now judge that it was substantial.
Many sage judges had criticised England for failure to react on the hoof against Wales, and within the first five minutes of the Italian game, kicks best described as ‘hopeful’ rather than even ‘speculative’ from large lumps of forwards, Billy Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler, made one wonder if the ever-contrary Eddie Jones had retreated further into his love of stereotyping the English by actually playing soccer.
But such fears were ill-founded as a massive backline with an equally substantial pack fused to provide a spectacle of power rugby that Azzurri Coach Conor O’Shea described admiringly as ‘the mountain top of power rugby’.
Eddie used this game to tweak, rather than experiment. He needed to find a prop that can replace Mako Vunipola’s ball handling at loosehead- Ellis Genge put his hand up. He needed to find some backrow challengers to the Curry/Wilson/Vunipola triumvirate and Brad Shields took his chance. He wanted to find out where Manu Tuilagi was best employed, and Manu showed everyone 13 is his preferred berth. But, out of all Eddie’s experiments, the biggest plus was the rangy and at times ridiculous running of Bath’s behemoth wing, Joe Cokanasiga.
The right wing was simply playing rugby at a level that was as revolutionary to English eyes as Jonah Lomu was to New Zealand minds. As big as Lawes and Launchbury, the Man of the Match ripped Italy asunder so many times he may have been accused of bullying.
He’s not the finished article yet, which is worrying for opponents. He said, rather ironically, coming into this game that he intended to ‘grab this chance with both hands’; sadly many wished he’d have grabbed the ball with both hands as a couple of chances went begging due to the last pass not being made.
But hey, that’s a little churlish. Rugby needs showmanship of this ilk. It needs a man to get supporters fixed to their places, abdicating bars and bacon butties, as the viewers watch in awe of what this crackerjack of a player will do next. In short, he puts bums on seats, a rare commodity.
Elsewhere, Brad Shields finally looked at ease in test rugby, and his workrate and mobility lost little in comparison to the more established Mark Wilson. It will be interesting to see who earns the six shirt for the Calcutta Cup game as Jones may consider that Wilson offers cover for four positions off the bench (he’s played many games at lock for Falcons as well as his favoured back row slots) and use him off the bench with Shields starting.
If there were reports of vandalism to a Ferrari in SW London on Saturday, it would be Ellis Genge’s destruction of the Italian Tighthead Simone Ferrari at the top of the Police Crime sheet. The Tiger was magnificent, in hit and defence and threw his hat in the ring in the lethal manner of Oddjob in the legendary Bond ‘Goldfinger’ film. His skills are needed and Jones will be overjoyed that the big man kept his cool and his focus.
But it wasn’t all good news. England left three, maybe four tries out there, with a couple of final passes spilled when the line beckoned. They’ll also be very concerned that Italy got around their narrow defence at the corner (the 13/14 channel) on at least four or five occasions and John Mitchell won’t have overlooked 21 missed primary tackles from his D System. Put simply, England will realise the requirement to sort out the soft opportunities they gifted Italy.
Looking forward to the Calcutta Cup clash, Eddie now needs to select rather than simply name a side. It’s essential that England play with pace and style and put a marker down for their brand of rugby for the next crucial seven months.
Scotland have not won at HQ since the famous Jim Aitken game of 1983. They’ll come ready to disrupt, deconstruct and attack with a smile. England need to respond, and respond in the way they did on Saturday, with variety, pace and power at the core of their game.
It’ll be a crackerjack and one full of scoring and ambition, but one England simply cannot afford to lose.
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 16 March 2019
KO: 17:00 HT: 31-7 Att: tbc
T: Nowell, Curry, Launchbury, May, Ford C: Farrell (4), Ford P: Farrell
T: McInally, Graham (2), Bradbury, Russell, Johnson C: Russell (2), Laidlaw (2)
Referee: Paul Williams
DRAMA, theatre, comebacks, underdogs. This game had it all, save for one thing: a performance to springboard England’s World Cup hopes.
The stats are there to see - each side won a half each; 31-7 respectively. The second half started with empty stands as disinterested supporters meandered their way back from the bars, expecting the game to be all but over, and thinking England would continue scoring at a run-rate similar to Chris Gayle after a drinks break.
The England demise was so unexpected that many watchers have asked what was said by Owen Farrell in the England dressing room at half time? Judged on the match swing it could only be something along the lines of “Lads, PaddyPower offering 750/1 on the draw - tenner each and we’re out of here,” so bad was their showing. Indeed, should any cricketer play like that in international sport, the ICC would launch an immediate probe into betting misbehaviour.
Being slightly less tongue in cheek, there was a huge shift in tactic from Scotland after the break. The England power runners had an armchair ride in the first half, using two runners available off their primary carrying receiver, on both the open and blind, using pop passes to bring one of those players crashing into the game thus varying the angle of attack.
This caused a real headache for the Scots who employ a man watching defence, as they were forced to defend both sides of the attack. However, there was a clear change of defensive tactic at half time to a ball watching defence, one that saw the Scots pause and then attack the ball rather than the man as it was passed or kicked off the first carrier.
The architects of this system were MoM Finn Russell, Ali Pryce, and the outstanding Hamish Watson; three small but quick and powerful men. The pressure they put on England’s connecting axis was so great that it sheared, leaving Farrell exposed without options.
But let’s applaud Scotland - they were compelling and showed leadership and decisioning that England wouldn’t be able to manage if you replayed the game 20 times over.
Much has been made of England’s mental approach, or rather, mental frailties. Eddie Jones harks back to the Wales game in Rugby World Cup 2015 as being a breaking point of confidence, saying it was still work in progress. In the spirit of journalistic openness, never, in the history of Twickenham, has such a load of round spherical objects ever been spoken in a Press Briefing since South African coach, Rudi Straueli, complained about England’s physicality in 2002.
Here’s the deal: Eddie, you’ve had four years to sort that out, and some 41 test matches featuring some 79 players. To try and intimate this is a legacy issue is disingenuous in the extreme.
You use words like “I failed in my coaching”, phrases like “I could have done better.” The simple truth is you need to let go. You need to stop coaching in an intense framework of micro plans and you need to allow players to lead and make decisions.
Crucial to this is the empowerment of leadership. Not one, two or three but many, in every position. People bright enough to make a difference on the hoof, without your involvement. The best coaches don’t do much - that’s because world class sportsmen evolve the game themselves, as New Zealand do and as England did in the early 00’s.
There’s a wonderful tale about the RWC Final 2003. Just before Extra Time, Clive Woodward ran on with a clipboard to instruct his charges. Martin Johnson took one look and said “Eff off Clive, we know what to do.”
Roll the clock forward 16 years, and should Eddie Jones run onto the pitch at full time carrying a clipboard, the only thing that’ll be on it will be the plane tickets home. Economy.
In short, four years on from a debacle that should never have been repeated, we’re in danger of re-releasing the same record. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and one that has been caused by Jones, his clichéd characterisation of English rugby and his inability to let go.
Based upon his record, he’s an abject failure and unless things change markedly in the next six months, he and England will be the laughing stock of world rugby, ironically, something that remains the only true consistency in the English game.