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: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 09 March 2019
KO: 16:45 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Nic Berry
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 16 March 2019
KO: 17:00 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Paul Williams