Exclusive to Rugby Unplugged's 2018 NatWest Six Nations coverage, we bring you weekly analysis every Friday on Eddie Jones' England Rugby, from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.
Stadio Olimpico - 04 February 2018
KO: 16:00 HT: 10-17 Att: 61,464
T: Benvenuti, Bellini C: Allan P: Allan
T: Watson (2), Farrell, Simmonds (2), Ford, Nowell C: Farrell (4) P: Farrell
Referee: Mathieu Raynal
IN rugby terms, it seems the adage is “When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do” is apt.
Yes, England came, saw and conquered, and at times played some quite compelling rugby. But importantly, it gave Eddie Jones the chance to see the detail between some of the claims laid down by a few of the new brigade.
At the forefront of the young upstarts was Sam Simmonds; dynamic from the first moment of the day, his speed over 30m is something quite spectacular and reminiscent of the likes of Michael Hooper, and before that, the great Richard Hill.
The Exeter Chief bagged a brace and his ability to both beat a man and find the line gives England a lot of options, whether that be in the eight or seven shirt, and he’s someone who is capable of maximising the unique 1-2-2-1 pod system that Paul ‘The Wolfman’ Gustard and Jones have implemented.
Elsewhere, Ben Te’o may not have crossed the whitewash, but his leading of the defensive line was exceptional and Italy’s intentions were utterly nullified by the powerful blitz of the Worcester Warrior’s centre.
However, harsh critics are already suggesting England haven’t yet found a style; they’re winning, for sure, but have they a system other than bosh and blitz that will really unlock the best?
Well, the answer, based upon Rome, is yes. And that conclusion comes from the intuitive interplay of the Ford/Farrell axis. When firing well, it’s compelling and boasts an understanding that can only be forged from players that grew up together (in their case, living next door to each other from the age of 5). The ‘style’ criticism exists purely because of the variety that both offer; that priceless ability to pick a tactic from a war chest of weaponry to deliver the most effective tool to deliver a killer blow.
Whether it’s a chip, a loop, a miss, they have it all and they have variety in abundance. The only caveat here is that Ford needs to be standing flat and running onto a bullet pass, and once Ben Youngs was replaced by Danny Care, that pace and snap went from the service of the scrum half. Care has many positive qualities, but ones based upon snipes, kicks and darts when defences are tired and games become deconstructed.
There is a danger that the very hardest physical defences and attacks may intimidate Ford, but already Jones has legislated for this, and every time phase 1 exposure is threatened, you’ll see either Chris Robshaw or Billy Vunipola standing guard in the ten channel. Eddie has seen where it may go wrong and he’s covered it off, preferring to rely on guile than bludgeon, and that’s great to see.
Moving forward to Wales, there are still questions of balance in the back row. Courtney Lawes’ form might also suggest, that should Eddie want to recalibrate that balance, that Maro Itoje might be the man to become a finisher. Harsh perhaps, but an indication of the immense depth England have within the ‘diesel units’ of the side and a total vindication of Jones’ thinking that the game is a 23 man performance.
Wales’ pacy back row may trouble England, and with doughty performers like Alun Wyn Jones around there’s many a test to be had.
England are still not yet the finished article, but when is a side finished these days? There’s still work to be done, but as long as George Ford and Owen Farrell continue opening sides up with such ease and intellect, all is blooming in the garden of the Red Rose.
Twickenham Stadium - 10 February 2018
KO: 16:45 HT: 12-3 Att: 82,000
T: May (2) C: Farrell
P: Patchell, Anscombe
Referee: Jérôme Garcès
AMIDST cold, rain, wind and controversy, England again managed to eke out a win; a win forged on grit, resilience and defence.
It’s easy to point to pivotal moments, such as the disallowed Welsh try, but that would denude the control England’s half backs exuded, augmented by outstanding Owen Farrell at 12. Indeed, Care, Ford and Farrell tore Wales, and their back three in particular, apart in the first 25 minutes with some sumptuous pure footballing skills.
England have been criticised in some quarters for not formulating an identifiable style. Quite what this means remains moot, but one feature that is emerging is their ability to switch attacking strategy to suit what is in front of them, and as defining styles go, that speaks volumes for the intellect of both the players and the coaching staff.
Owen Farrell’s vision for Johnny May’s first score was something to savour. The speed with which the Saracen saw the opportunity was matched only by his lethal execution of the kick. It was out of the top drawer, as were the chips, bombs and grubbers that followed from the boots of Messer’s Ford and Care. Quite simply, those first 25 minutes were a masterclass of winning football, as Eddie Jones may have described it. It was quite sumptuous.
However, England thereafter were less than impressive. Yes, they defended magnificently, no person more so than Sam Underhill, whose last gasp tackle in the corner was reminiscent of Winterbottom or Hill at their finest. But 60 minutes without one score? That is of huge concern.
What of Wales? Well, it didn’t escape many that Mike Brown’s improved display bagged him a Man of the Match award, but was there a better player on the park than the absolutely outstanding Aaron Shingler? Gareth Anscombe too, a man expecting to see more of the West Stand than the pitch itself, put in an all-round display of high quality, and when he took over at ten, with the stuttering Rhys Patchell yanked off with Eddie Jones’ pre-match barbs stuck firmly in his mind as his game fell apart in the Twickenham mizzle, so Wales really troubled England.
Many will point to the disallowed try as a key turning point. But anyone suggesting it lost Wales the match need to realise that the visitors still gained 3 points from the resulting penalty, so the difference was either four or two points, not the seven Wales are claiming would have secured the game.
Players also like honesty and quite frankly, claiming that one incident cost a match degrades the importance of the other 79 minutes of the match, and the honest coach (and Gatland is certainly that) will point to their own deficiencies behind closed doors, whilst the public outrage may continue for a few years to come.
In the final analysis, England know how to both win and win ugly. They’re in a habit now, and Wales’ young charges didn’t quite have the reference points nor the ability to dig deep enough to find those extra points.
Wales do need to find some slightly more robust options in certain areas (second lock and prop being two of them) but all in all, there was much for the fledgling side to take back over the Severn Bridge with them.
Moving forward, one might suggest England may have a tough assignment ahead of them at Murrayfield, but Scotland will be relying on conviction and hope more so than logic and form when they claim to be marginal favourites.
Wales’ youngsters should not get down heartened. They matched one of the finest defences and set pieces in the world on Saturday, and with more of Lady Luck’s favour, they may have emerged victors, and they will emerge better players for the stern test they were given.
BT Murrayfield - 24 February 2018
KO: 16:45 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Nigel Owens
Stade de France - 10 March 2018
KO: 17:45 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Twickenham Stadium - 17 March 2018
KO: 14:45 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Angus Gardner