Exclusive to Rugby Unplugged's 2018 Autumn Internationals coverage, we bring you weekly analysis every Monday on Eddie Jones' England Rugby, from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 03 November 2018
KO: 15:00 HT: 6-8 Att: 80,369
P: Farrell (3), Daly Itoje
T: Nkosi P: Pollard (2)
Referee: Angus Gardner
AS we approach November so the autumn leaves fall and the shrubbery dies. It seems fitting then, that the man at the centre of clearing up mess that was England versus South Africa at Twickenham, goes by the name of Gardner.
The simple facts are England won 12-11 in a bruising encounter, but how they managed it is perplexing to many. This wasn’t a game for the itinerate supporter. It wasn’t even one for the rugby connoisseur. In fact, the only people that will have benefitted from the match are likely to be citing commissioners who are paid on a day-rate, such was the brutality and physicality of the game.
Let’s just examine the top line; England’s first half was absolutely dreadful. The new centre partnership of Te’o and Slade was split asunder by the outstanding Damian de Allende on four or five separate occasions but whilst England’s primary defence was ineffective, their scramble defence, led by the magnificent Falcon, Mark Wilson, kept them in the game.
After the break, England changed gear and showed some real ambition, with the units starting to gel with a little more threat the longer they played together. Slade and May showed some sublime touches, Wilson and Sinckler made telling incursions and England eroded the half time South African lead of 8-6 to emerge victorious at 12-11.
However, all the post-match talk focused on one incident- Farrell’s last gasp tackle on André Esterhuizen. As the Bok replacement hit open play 43m out on the right side, so Farrell made a challenge that some would say was mercurial, others would say was marginal, and many would say was reckless. Nevertheless, three officials scrutinised the call via the TMO and Angus Gardner ruled the England fly-half had made an attempt to tackle but had been fended by the left arm of Esterhuizen.
Cue absolute outrage from all parts of the rugby world save for Middle England.
The social media outrage ranged wildly from ‘we were robbed’ to questioning the parentage of the referee himself.
But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see that South Africa was masterful; masterful in their own downfall.
In 80 minutes of helter-skelter rugby, SA managed zero offloads. None. Nil. Nothing.
They made four clean linebreaks versus England’s 14.
Their tackle completion was 80% versus England’s 89% and their line out yielded four clean turnovers (or losses).
Then, if we unpack the scenario around the 29th minute when SA were camped on the England line, we note they opt to kick for the corner off a scrum penalty. England have Itoje off the pitch, their scrum anchor and their front jumper, with the lightweight Shields locking and the featherweight wing Jack Nowell flanking, suggesting that the Boks’ should either attack England via a line out driven maul, or via an attacking scrum against a rejigged pack.
Instead, for reasons that will never be revealed nor comprehended, Malcolm Marx, the world’s best hooker, goes for the only option that could keep England in the game - a long high risk back throw, and he threw it so far and hard that had Tom Curry not snaffled it 30m in field, the ball may have landed in nearby Hounslow West Market.
It was a moment of pivotal nature and displayed decision making that was muddled, ill-conceived and, in truth, utterly stupid.
England rallied from this moment. They gained a little self-belief and when Itoje jogged back on to resume normal service, so England improved and towards the end, started to look something like a top five test nation.
They’ll be delighted with the form of their hookers, their locks and MoM Mark Wilson. Less so with regard to the penetration of the half backs, with the backline probably just remaining in credit at the end of the match. They will welcome back a couple of key players for the All Black test, with Eddie Jones assuring the press corps that the behemoth Courtney Lawes is winning his race against a stiff back to be fit for the NZ game. They’ll remain hopeful but desperate for a win and for tries.
And South Africa? Well to claim that the ref robbed them would be ill conceived. As the humble Rassie Erasmus pointed out, why argue about the 80th minute when there were fully 79 other minutes in the game to take the win. South Africa were impressive in everything but thought and tactical awareness, and unless they get their thinking matching their skills, they’ll endure a few more losses like this.
Whatever the view, one thing is certain; good sides win ugly and England managed that.
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 10 November 2018
KO: 15:00 HT: 15-10 Att: 82,149
T: Ashton, Hartley C: Farrell DG: Farrell
T: McKenzie C: Beauden Barrett P: Beauden Barrett DG: Beauden Barrett
Referee: Jérôme Garcès
AND there you have it. Four years of build up and press hyperbole and then, rather like the weather, England and New Zealand produced the perfect storm, with the hosts pushing the World Champs down to the wire in every respect but unable to close the game off as the All Blacks took the Hillary Cup 15-16.
It was a game of the finest of margins and, unlike the previous weekend, one that ironically saw England finally turn a corner in terms of performance.
Inevitably, the game turned on one TMO incident; the Underhill try. Sitting in the East Stand, with the incident directly below the press box, Lawes’ legality did admittedly look very marginal. Indeed, upstairs went the outstanding Jérôme Garcès, only to be told by South African TMO, Marius Jonker, that Courtney Lawes WAS indeed offside at the moment of the charge down.
But wait a minute. Let’s just quote Law 15: A ruck is formed when at least one player from each team are in contact, on their feet and over the ball which is on the ground.
Let’s look at the picture. Where is the England player forming said ruck, you know, the player of EACH side that HAS to be ON THEIR FEET to form the ruck? Well, we at RugbyUnplugged have looked for 24 hours and still we can’t find him.
It’s simple; no ruck was properly formed and on that basis alone, there was NO offside line and in their haste to overturn a decision, the match officials forgot their basics of the law of the game.
It’s not even one open for any form on interpretation - it’s absolutely crystal clear. It was a blunder of epic proportions.
Nevertheless, to blame one incident in one minute in a game of 80 minutes is a recipe for dishonesty.
England can look to many other issues and moments along their 80 with critical eyes and, hopefully, learning minds:
50 minutes, 15-16 down. Farrell calls for two corner kicks when three points were on offer. Learning: Always take the points in tight games of attrition against world class sides.
Set Piece Completion: England 66% versus NZ’s 96% tells its own tale, and one has to question why the rumbustious Dylan Hartley was yanked off when having arguably his best ever outing for England. Learning: don’t get obsessed with finishers; there’s a reason why Hartley starts.
Midfield woes; Many thought Owen Farrell had a near faultless game, but the stats tell you he missed 11 primary tackles, far too many for a player of his calibre. And, would it surprise you to learn that Te’o and Slade made a paltry 24m all game against the 88m made by the All Black centres? Brad Shields, whilst industrious, completed half the tackles of his outstanding cohorts Mark Wilson and Sam Underhill.
When you unpack the above you realise just how fine the margins were in this titanic encounter, and equally importantly, you can also see precisely what England need to do to fix them.
The day, with its torrential rain, was a shocker for handling and, as we all know, penetration versus the All Blacks is as challenging as a dentist trying to drill a tooth with a sock. But looking beyond that, England know they need to up the midfield performance, tidy up the line out and make the primary tackles- things that are all very fixable when you see such work-rate and desire as Jones’ men had in this fixture.
There were other moments too; when New Zealand palpably collapsed England’s second big rolling maul rumble in the second half when a try looked assured; put simply, they’d done it once and the All Black collapse was one so obviously born of frustration that a bin and a penalty try may have been the outcome on a different day.
All in all though, games are won and lost but the performance remains and this was a performance that England should be very, very proud of.
What of New Zealand? Well, Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read kept them in that game with simple resilient test match rugby nous. They’re a side where winning is as much a habit as tobacco is for a chain smoker. They’re addicted to it, and any separation causes them such withdrawal pain that they’ll do anything to grab their fix of victory.
They will worry about the anonymity of Liam Squire who literally made four tackles all day. They’ll have concerns over the style Ardie Savea has around contact – a player who looks to run in the open but was largely ineffective in the tight, and they’ll also worry greatly about their ability to get around England on the flanks.
However, they (and Ireland) are in the luxurious place of honing, refining and tweaking. They know how to win, they’re working hard on retention periods and yesterday will be seen as nothing other than a very stern test that, yet again, they passed with flying colours.
England know what they have to do to beat the All Blacks, but importantly the All Blacks know what they have to do to beat anyone in the world, and they just keep doing it.
15 Elliot Daly 14 Chris Ashton 13 Henry Slade 12 Ben Te’o 11 Jonny May 10 OWEN FARRELL (CC) 9 Ben Youngs 1 Ben Moon 2 DYLAN HARTLEY (CC) 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Brad Shields 7 Sam Underhill 8 Mark Wilson BENCH: 16 Jamie George 17 Alec Hepburn 18 Harry Williams 19 Charlie Ewels 20 Courtney Lawes21 Danny Care 22 George Ford 23 Jack Nowell
SCORERS T: Ashton, Hartley C: Farrell DG: Farrell
15 Damian McKenzie 14 Ben Smith 13 Jack Goodhue 12 Sonny Bill Williams 11 Rieko Ioane 10 Beauden Barrett 9 Aaron Smith 1 Karl Tu'inukuafe 2 Codie Taylor 3 Owen Franks 4 Samuel Whitelock 5 Brodie Retallick 6 Liam Squire 7 Ardie Savea 8 KIERAN READ (C) BENCH: 16 Dane Coles 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi 18 Nepo Laulala 19 Scott Barrett 20 Matt Todd 21 TJ Perenara 22 Richie Mo'unga 23 Ryan Crotty
SCORERS T: McKenzie C: Beauden Barrett P: Beauden Barrett DG: Beauden Barrett
Referee: Jérôme Garcès Asst Referees: Jaco Peyper, Marius Mitrea TMO: Marius Jonker
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 24 November 2018
KO: 15:00 HT: 13-13 Att: 81,275
T: May, Daly, Cokanasiga, Farrell C: Farrell (4) P: Farrell (3)
T: Folau (2) C: To’omua P: To’omua (2)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
WHEN Japan play anyone these day, banana skins litter the pitch for the established nations to slip upon.
This test proved no different, as an experimental (by Eddie Jones’ standards) side went in at half time in full panic mode at 15-10 down, but emerged fortuitous winners as the home team eventually managed to find another gear to pull away 37-15 against resourceful and cunning opponents who adore broken play and welcome contact. It’s ironic that their only other visit to Twickenham in 1986 also resulted in a half time lead, but, with wonderful symmetry, they failed to score in the second half when England scored 22 unanswered points.
For fully 40 minutes, the Brave Blossoms bloomed, and Yu Tamura finally landed a penalty and then centre Nakamura bounced off a pathetic tackle attempt by Lozowski to score the try to give Japan took the lead at Twickenham. The lead was defined by their inspirational skipper Michael Leitch who added to England’s woes by snatching a wonderful try down the right flank and powering through three England defenders to score.
For that first half, England were dire, lacking control in contact and organisation in defence. Desperate times call for desperate measures and again England’s discipline ruined their ambition as they conceded eight penalties in the first half, with Jamie George being dispatched to the sin bin. Their much vaunted defence fared no better as the centres in particular missed tackle after tackle and created dog leg after dog leg.
Jones isn’t one for holding back when it comes to early replacements, and the ruthless head coach sent on most of his big-gun replacements during the second half. Inspired by Owen Farrell, they made the difference as tries for the outstanding Mark Wilson, debutant winger Joe Cokanasiga and Dylan Hartley and the boot of George Ford completed the comeback.
Although many saw the 11-man changed side as ‘experimental’, the need for depth in any international side is now obvious, with every international side experiencing missing players and unavailability.
With England, many could say they’ve already answered the questions, but in the negative. Since John Mitchell took over the defensive coaching role for England, they have transitioned from a ball-watching defence (from Paul Gustard) to a man watching defence (from Mitchell). The former All Blacks coach’s system requires both the openside win and the ‘sweeper’ (normally the scrum half) to control the two outside attackers.
Time and time again, Japan cleverly ran down George Ford’s channel, which gained metres, and on several occasions, Danny Care joined his half back partner in defence from necessity. This allowed Japan to use fast hands to create a two on one on the openside wing, knowing that England’s sweeper had already committed to a tackle on the first phase and was effectively out of the game. This became an even bigger issue when Henry Slade replaced Chris Ashton and created doglegs in the midfield. England have been muddled their defence all November now, and with three games under their belt, they should now be used to Mitchell’s system.
Elsewhere, ticks go to Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Charlie Ewels, Sam Underhill, Elliott Daly and, yet again, the teak-tough Mark Wilson. But in debit, Ford’s lack of game management is obvious, and when Farrell is on the pitch England look two metres taller and two metres wider. It’s apparent that the midfield primary defence is disorganised and ineffective and good sides will unlock the midfield hiccoughs or go around the narrow openside with ease.
But the last word belongs to Japan, who underlined their aspirations as a first tier nation. In terms of style, not many are as precise, as quick and as intuitive in their decision making as any side in the world. Jamie Joseph has taken on where Eddie left off and the most interesting feature of their game was their ability to adapt on the field to game situations. They saw instantly how England tried to defend and they attacked Ford. When Henry Slade came on (and consistently lagged the England primary defence) they held back from going into contact and they tried to offload around the flying Exeter Chief.
To a man, Japan epitomise rugby intelligence. They might be the Land of the Rising Sun but in rugby terms, they are the Land of the Rising Hopes.
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 24 November 2018
KO: 15:00 HT: 13-13 Att: 81,275
T: May, Daly, Cokanasiga, Farrell C: Farrell (4) P: Farrell (3)
T: Folau (2) C: To’omua P: To’omua (2)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
AS England finally produced something close to the perfect performance in their 37-18 Cook Cup match against Australia, it’s time to assess the November season for Eddie Jones and his charges.
The Australian test was a turning point. A game where England repackaged the promise of the New Zealand performance, the guts of the South African performance, and the fortitude of their Japanese encounter all into 80 minutes.
Finally, Jones’ big units started to run either side off the ten at pace and the outcome was fantastic to see, with Elliot Daly and Joe Cokanasiga looking stellar in attack.
Combine this with the consistency of Mark Wilson, the power of Lawes and Sinckler and put bluntly, Australia were blown away.
Yes, there will be bar room chat regarding yet another Owen Farrell tackle (and this time, Australia do have a very fair point) but you can only control what you are able to control and as Eddie always reminds us, he doesn’t comment on the officiating.
But let’s take a look at the bigger picture; where are England now?
Eddie Jones considered success from this year’s campaign was, in his words, four wins. Yes, they came very close, but when judging the campaign there’s a lot more to unpack that just the results themselves.
Looking objectively, England were poor against SA but won, superb versus the All Blacks but lost, awful in a win against Japan but finally, in the last test, the gears and cogs meshed and they put in a performance of considerable merit, promise and no less brilliance at times.
However, the good news is there’s shape to be seen in England’s attack; there’s movement off the nine and ten channel and finally, big men are handling at pace and with skill.
Central to this has been the back row; 21 years ago by accident, Clive Woodward ended up with two opensides and a blindside in his trio. The result? The greatest unit the game has ever seen; Hill, Back and Dallaglio. History has a habit of repeating itself, and somehow this season, we ended up with two lightweight blindsides and an openside as our breakaways, and yet again, they gelled. Big time. Mark Wilson was England’s best player of the series, Underhill superb when he got the chance, and Brad Shields started poorly but learned well.
It’s no co-incidence John Mitchell was coaching England when the Holy Trinity emerged and also now, when this mobile trio were first selected. He was the man that convinced Jones to start Wilson at 8 and opt for pace over poundage. It was a wise move.
Games are won and lost in the back row and at half back. By this measure, and with the behemoth Billy Vunipola set for yet another comeback in December, England look now to be stacked with options in these crucial positions.
Elsewhere, the depth in the front row is remarkable, especially considering Mako Vunipola, Dan Cole (now in top form for Tigers) and Ben Abano didn’t feature. The strike power in the back three is quite frightening with big Joe, Daly, Jonny May (who now must be in the top three wingers in the game) and Anthony Watson to choose from, plus Mike Brown, Jason Woodward and Alex Goode all great options at 15.
The only cause for concern is Eddie’s centres. Without Billy in the back row, Jones likes a carrier and a distributor at 12 with Ben Te’o wearing the shirt. At 13 Henry Slade showed some sublime touches, but as a unit, they lack cohesion. It’s the one area where there’s work in progress, and it’s further complicated by the fact that England’s best 12 is also their best 10.
Looking to the future, England’s progress has gone from a C minus to a B plus in four tests. In order to improve further, they now need to start thinking like winners.
A cursory glance at this year’s performances will show 18 Tests between the top six sides where only one single score separated the two competing sides. This is a portent of the World Cup to come where attrition and owning the scoreboard will be everything for sides intent on winning.
For England to progress, discipline is vital. Against Japan, nine penalties in 40 minutes tells its own tale. 18 penalties against South Africa and another dozen against the All Blacks. These are giving their opponents cheap get outs to any pressure England are creating. Stupid and mindless penalties need to stop and stop right now.
In terms of winning mindset, taking the points on offer is a key learning and turning point for all sides. (Even the mighty All Blacks relied upon Stephen Donald’s boot to break their World Cup drought in 2011!) Owen Farrell has probably replayed the corner kick against the Kiwis 100 times in his mind now, and you can bet your bottom dollar he will have gone for goal 100 times since the event itself.
Another component is created a drop goal strategy. It is almost unfathomable that against NZ in the last 15, with two international fly halves on the pitch, that England never set up the simple three pointer. It is a hammer blow to sides and totally undefendable.
Nonetheless, these are all learning points. Whilst Jones may roundly be criticised for his Six Nations showings, these matches against the SH finest took England to a new level, one of shape, direction, power and pace.
With the firepower he has waiting to come back into the arsenal, every England fan has a right to be excited, but in order for the Rose to fully bloom, embedding the learning of this November, both good and bad, is absolutely vital.
NB KO times below are local; not all Tier 2 matches are covered in full.