Exclusive to Rugby Unplugged's 2017 RBS Six Nations coverage, we bring you weekly analysis on Eddie Jones' England Rugby, from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.
Twickenham Stadium, London - 04 February 2017
KO: 16:50 HT: 9-9 Att: 81,902
T: Te'o C: Farrell P: Farrell (3), Daly May
T: Slimani C: Lopez P: Lopez (3)
GOOD sides have the happy knack of winning ugly.
In England’s first game of the 2017 6 Nations, the hosts did exactly that, getting the job done for their 19-16 win over France, despite a mightily effective showing from the juggernauts in the French pack.
The result leaves England as joint top of the table, but Eddie Jones’ rugby aspirations are much greater than the performance offered yesterday and it’s a barometer of England’s desire that this match will be considered a very average performance.
What went wrong? From the very first moment of the match, France showed an ability to compete and bully on the gainline that few sides have managed. Fielding a side of such size and muscle one wondered if the UK Border Officials searched their juggernauts sock tops for illegal immigrants at Dover, France refused to yield in areas of contact that England have bossed for the last year or so.
Looking at the hosts’ selectorial issues, it’s clear the back row had a degree of imbalance; shorn of both Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola, that essential metre of momentum in the collision was ceded to France time and time again. This both slowed England’s ability to recycle, which in turn stopped their support players running onto the ball at pace and in waves of support, as witnessed in recent tests.
France, with an advantage of some 3kgs per man in both the forwards and backs, hammered England’s attacks backwards time and time again, and if the visitors had shown more ruthlessness in finishing, the game would have been settled by 60 minutes in France’s favour.
Remi Lamerat and Scott Spedding were thorns in England’s side all evening, combining aggressive running with a variety of attacking incursions. Their enthusiasm to handle the ball, whilst commendable, showed a lack of clarity of thinking, as repeatedly France ran the ball in areas of the pitch where they may well have been better advised to play for territory and get themselves up into the red zone, the scoring area of the pitch.
However, the best sides find a way to win; a method with which to keep the scoreboard moving. Micro incidents (such as Elliott Daly’s 50m penalty) chip away at both the points tally and the confidence of their opponents and the setpiece, an area where England delivered well at scrum time and gained marginal superiority in the line out, yielded enough scoring opportunities to keep England in the game.
Rugby is very much a 23 man game these days, and nothing highlighted that better than the relative impact of both teams’ benches.
England, able to bring on 140 caps with the introduction of Danny Care and James Haskell, upped both their tempo and physicality. Haskell in particular, a man who has played less than half a game of rugby this year, changed the dynamics completely as he took into his own hands England’s lack of power in the contact and steamed around the field like a hippo on heat.
That power was crucial in setting Ben Te’o’s try up; Haskell’s bulk removed three of the French defenders, all committed to bringing the big Wasp down; France’s back row, shorn of the dominant Damien Chouly, now replaced by the power-puff Loann Goujon, simply had no legs to get around to defend the openside flank and Te’o dotted down almost untouched.
Moving forward, both teams will learn lessons and both will be upbeat about areas of their performances.
France are very close to being a real force; Kevin Gourdon, reminiscent of the great Olivier Magne, was a revelation for their support work and new-found continuity of play. Guy Novès too will have noted the difference Rabah Slimani made when he came on for the man mountain Uini Antonio after 60 mins. Factor back in Wesley Fofana in the 12 berth and you have a side that will (and have already) challenged the best.
What of England? Well, Eddie Jones learns quickly. For a man that loves his cricketing analogies, he’ll take a lot of inspiration from the words of former England Cricket skipper, Mike Brearley, who once said ‘saying a winning side can’t be changed is as daft as saying a losing side should always be changed.’ He will look long and hard about the carrying power in the back row and it’s almost certain a change will be made, whether that be Haskell returning at the expense of Tom Wood, or by moving Maro Itoje to locking the scrum from his foray into the back row.
Itoje, who has been something approaching mercurial in his career to date, saw clearly the step up in carry workrate needed to play in the back row. He will learn for sure, but Cardiff in February is no place for scholars and it’s odds on that he’ll return to the engine room at the probable expense of Courtney Lawes.
Mike Brown’s place too seems under threat, with Jones almost desperate to get his prodigy Daly into the 15 shirt.
It remains to be seen if England can fully overcome the imbalances caused injury and unavailability. However, one thing is for sure; when sides play as poorly as England (by their lofty standards) did and still win, the rest of the rugby world need to be scared. Very scared.
Principality Stadium, Cardiff - 11 February 2017
KO: 16:50 HT: 13-8 Att: 74,500
T: Liam Williams C: Halfpenny P: Halfpenny (3)
T: Youngs, Daly C: Farrell P: Farrell (3)
THERE are test matches and then there are tests of character itself.
This was, without question, the biggest test of Eddie Jones’ coaching reign, in every aspect and interpretation of the word.
Let’s examine the evidence; 7 players unable to start due to fitness or unavailability. A back row that was so makeshift Courtney Lawes, disguised in the 5 shirt, played on the flank all game; only one ‘unit’ (half-back) where England could field first choices and first choice finishers; two points behind with five minutes to go and so on.
When you tot it all up, you can truly see the enormity of this win, a win reminiscent of an All Black side digging deep into their flint-like character and depth of experience in the last ten minutes.
Let’s face facts; Wales were immense and could have taken the game.
The compelling performances from their back-row and their skipper Alun-Wyn Jones, Biggar in attack and defence, and both of the Williams lads could, rather worryingly, inspire Max Boyce to pen an album about ongoing English millennial subjugation, such was the heroism in defeat of the hosts.
But it’s fine margins that win test matches and England were better in the offload, set-piece and most importantly of all, the impact of the respective benches.
In the scrum, Marler and Cole, players who go about their business like the unnoticed session musicians on hit records, were colossal; three scrum penalties yielded nine points and in a game where every metre counted, their contribution in destroying any form of clean ball from the Welsh setpiece platform was crucial.
At ruck time, some will argue that a turnover count of 8 v 2 in Wales’ favour shows domination. A detailed view of the game will counter this argument by illustrating England were throwing one body into a ruck to three Welshmen, leaving numbers outside to prevent Wales going wide. Conversely, every time Launchbury, Lawes and Hughes crashed into contact, three or four Welsh bodies were taken out of the defensive supply chain earning England the right to go wide and the right to retain.
Bench players in Eddie-land are no longer the poor relations of the starting XV. Renamed as ‘finishers’ by Jones, the last quarter saw a volte face in the game as Ben Te’o, Jamie George and the man who needs no re-branding whatsoever, James Haskell, simply rejuvenated England with a display of ruthless power and outrageous bullying that would be the envy of President Donald Trump himself.
Key to this was Jamie George’s ability to offer continuity; his mobility was such that at one point his handling on the left wing caused one seasoned Fleet Street sage to mistake him for Elliot Daly!
In those final minutes, the attritional war England had waged on Wales’ set piece bore fruit as Wales, turning over England’s push for the line, opted to kick infield but deep. The speed of thought, fleetness of foot and passing accuracy of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Daly ripped Wales apart and Daly’s raw pace left Alex Cuthbert for dead as the Wasp buzzed around the Welshman to score in the openside corner.
It was the stuff of dreams. Eddie Jones had mischievously suggested that he’d no idea what the big fuss was about in this most traditional of matches. However, post-match the Australian was effusive in praise for Wales, the crowd, the atmosphere and, most of all, the grit and composure of his young charges.
Looking forward to Italy, England’s boss has mooted some changes. Daly at 15 is a given, with Watson and half of the Vunipola show likely returning. It’s also possible that Ben Te’o may be given an outing at 13 where Jonathan Joseph’s defensive brilliance appears to have slightly blunted his sharpness in attack.
Elsewhere, Jones is sure to give Jack Clifford, who coped well in clearing out and securing for 50 minutes, more test experience, but those who know our Eddie will also expect a degree of preparation for the vastly improving Scotland the week after.
So there you have it. 16 from their last 16 games is laudable. However, the cupboard, whilst not bare of silverware, is somewhat sparse and Jones will want further improvement from his team in the weeks ahead.
Twickenham Stadium, London - 26 February 2017
KO: 15:00 HT: 5-10 Att: 81,904
T: Cole, Care, Daly, Nowell (2), Te'o C: Farrell (3)
T: Venditti, Campagnaro C: Allan DG: Allan
NO-ONE can decry the acumen, intellect and execution of the Italian side, led by the tactical minx himself, Conor O’Shea, as they frustrated England’s attacking ambition despite eventually losing by 36-15.
Eddie Jones's charges stuttered and stumbled their way through the first half allowing Italy's intensity and keen rugby intellect to throw them off their game, and after Giovanbattista Venditti scored just before halftime it looked as though Italy were about to claim their second big scalp under Conor O'Shea after beating South Africa in November.
But England eventually learned to counter the innovative Italians and late scores by Ben Te’o, Elliot Daly and Jack Nowell (2) gave a scoreline that possibly flattered the hosts.
The game was most notable for Italy’s innovative decision to remove England’s power rucking out of the contest by literally refusing to create rucks.
A ruck is a phase of play where one or more players from each team, who are on their feet, in physical contact, close around the ball on the ground, and once open play has ended. Bodies on the floor are not considered to be part of that ruck and it was this specific nuance that created mayhem in English thinking.
Italy threw so many people into England’s territory, closing off the pass, that if the game had been played in Chicago, you could bet your bottom dollar the Trump Administration would be ringing their bricklayers to build a wall to fend off the itinerate Italian immigrants.
In fact, such were the number of blue shirts braving enemy land that Italy’s wartime army could have learned a lot from that tactics of their Irish coach.
Good sides react to what is in front of them. And here’s the key; once the ruck was removed there was literally nothing in front of the English tackled players, and it took Eddie’s charges 40 minutes to work out the route to success was right through the middle of that non-ruck.
Despite the strangulation of the contact area, Italy managed some seriously impressive attacking plays, with Michelle Campagnaro scoring a memorable Twickenham try, as he bashed through George Ford and Mike Brown’s feeble attempts, to run 30 metres for a magnificent score just after half time.
As ever Sergio Parisse’s beacon shone brightest of all and at times and his ability to empower others but intervening with his unmatched skill-set when needed is getting better with every game under O’Shea. Too many times do the Azzurri shrug their shoulders and think “leave it to Sergio” yet under the new regime, every player is equal and it’s clear Parisse is actively looking to bring his lesser talented team-mates into his elevated world of unique rugby genius.
What of England? Well, here’s the rub; good sides need to face every test, and despite the uniformed and quite vitriolic fan’s cries of ‘offside’ and ‘that’s not rugby’ that bounced around the concrete pillars of Twickenham, England finally coped with the Italian impudence.
The bench, again, was key. Jack Nowell and Jamie George’s incursions into midfield and pace in the closing stages crucified the doughty visitors and allowed Ben Te’o and Elliot Daly to cross the line, with Nowell himself adding a cheeky brace with his low centre of gravity and speed of thought.
Maro Itoje too, now officially a five and a half, grew into his role with crucial turnovers at ruck, non-ruck and lineout.
Once the penny finally dropped (with James Haskell, Dylan Hartley and Maro Itoje asking for so many clarifications of law they might consider a role in a Parliamentary Select Committee), then England’s service was resumed almost to normal. But O’Shea, Brendan Venter and Mike Catt’s thinking have done something very special; they’ve inspired debate, outrage and admiration in equal measures from all concerned and for that, they should be applauded.
It is also worth singling out the real Man of the Match, referee Romain Poite, a former detective, who drew deeply into his sleuthing expertise to decipher Italy’s approach.
His reffing remained calm, accurate and suitably unflappable, even outdoing Nigel Owen’s comedic repertoire when he turned to the England flanker James Haskell and told him “I’m not your coach, I’m the ref!” In a game of rare legal uncertainty, the big cheese from Rochefort was magnificent.
In the final analysis, this was a shock tactic and one that O’Shea may keep in his locker for another occasion. Sides will know how to combat it now, so relying upon it as a gameplan is facile. Eddie Jones will be angry on one hand, but whimsically respectful on the other.
One wonders now how World Rugby will react, but more importantly, how the Championship leaders will recalibrate their approach when they take on a rampant Scotland in a fortnight’s time. It will be a thriller.
Twickenham Stadium, London - 11 March 2017
KO: 16:00 HT: 30-7 Att: 81,904
T: Joseph (3), Watson, Billy Vunipola, Care (2) C: Farrell (7) P: Farrell (4)
T: Reid, Jones (2) C: Russell (3) Brown
IT’S rare to see a top tier side utterly fail to turn up and that’s precisely what happened as Scotland capitulated to one of the most chastening defeats in Calcutta Cup history, losing to a rampant England by 61-21.
In stark contrast to England’s Italian encounter, Scotland came with a game plan to ruck, ruck and ruck some more. Sadly, the players chosen to provide that speedy service were completely outmuscled against a side that boasted an extra 5kg per man in the forwards.
Put simply, the Scots had no ability to punch or make metres on the gain line and as the game progressed, so England took a stranglehold that became as unbreakable as Nicola Sturgeon’s will to leave the Home Unions.
The game was almost pre-ordained in the first ten minutes, as both Stuart Hogg and his replacement, Mark Bennett, left the field with concussion and an injured shoulder respectively. Vern Cotter’s bench was stretched to breaking point as deckchairs, tables and the superstructure itself were rearranged, as Scotland’s own Titanic sank without trace, without a whimper or a murmur.
Quite why replacement scrum-half Henry Pyrgos was allowed to slot into his role at nine, with starter Ali Price banished to the backwaters of the wing, showed Scotland’s muddled thinking. Their one ray of sunshine, the cheeky outside half, Finn Russell, was absolutely neutered, as Pyrgos displayed a service so slow he might have been penalised for wasting time.
Nevertheless, this was all about England and how their machine cranked into a smooth and ruthless performance. And there, in a nutshell, is the issue. England were not challenged. To concede one try off a line out might be considered unfortunate; to concede three shows such carelessness that Oscar Wilde may be forced to recalibrate his famous observation.
The moves were identical; an extended lineout, the back pod driven to force the Scots back row to defend, and then the famous Brumbie peel move around the openside shoulders of the midfield. So effective was the play, that hat-trick hero Jonathan Joseph may have needed post-match treatment for traumatic agoraphobia, such were the acres of open space he enjoyed.
And there were glimpse of excellence elsewhere too; Nathan Hughes’ powerful running and one-handed carrying resembled visions of a Sassenach Mel Gibson, brandishing his sword and shield, leading his troops into conflict. Joe Launchbury continued his massive form and England’s three-lock engine room may inspire Canterbury to launch a memorial ‘5 and half’ shirt for the England powerhouses.
And then there was Billy; he looked lean (by his standards), hungry (and who wants to feed that?) and performed like a veritable wrecking ball as he made up for lost time, trundling over from a maul to snare a score (the fourth try England scored from some form of line-out play).
However, England needed extending prior to their match of the season, the trip to Ireland. They needed a good beating up in the forwards; they required their backs forced to defend for their lives and that didn’t happen.
Jones will go into the Ireland encounter with less clarity than he did before the Scottish game. He clearly hasn’t decided on his best midfield and Joseph’s hat trick may mean that Ben Te’o, a man that was in sublime form in previous games, isn’t selected to challenge the excellence of the Irish midfield.
In the back-cum-second row, Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje had monumental games, but experience of Dublin suggests the game will be won on the muddy floor of the Aviva Stadium rather than in the upper body hits, and this is where CJ Stander and his cohorts may have a massive advantage.
But hey, this is churlish stuff. England are 18 from 18 and many have observed that no-one will decry their form if they lose to an excellent Ireland Dublin. However, great teams are not built upon compromise. They are built upon steely determination, desire and attention to detail.
Churlish it may be, but if England lose their final game this year, Eddie Jones and England will consider the season a failure. And that in itself is a stark reminder of just how high this team are setting their own standards.
Aviva Stadium, Dublin - 18 March 2017
KO: 17:00 HT: 10-3
T: Henderson C: Sexton P: Sexton (2)
P: Farrell (3)
FOR those of us of a certain vintage, a wet and windy Dublin has become one of the most significant hurdles for any visiting England side to overcome.
Spurred on by enough sub-plots to commission a Sky Atlantic box set, with Lions selections, Paddy’s Day, stopping world records and more to play for, Ireland were absolutely compelling, resolute and as hard as nails in every facet of the game, halting England’s Grand Slam hopes dead and emerging victors by 13-9.
It’s ironic that in a column called the Gain Line, that that very area was the focal point of Ireland’s tactics; choke tackles and power abounded as immovable object resisted force and for once, emerged the victor.
The Gods shone on Ireland in a most unexpected way in the warm up; many good Irish judges had suggested the best back row was the one that started the game, and Peter O’Mahony’s unexpected recall resulted in a performance of compelling skill and execution from the man they call Pistol.
England have every right to call this campaign a poor one after setting their sights on such lofty expectation. But underneath the gloss of 18 successive wins, there were still question marks over balance of the side and their ability to adapt should a side beat them up in the forwards.
Whilst England haven’t yet suggested they’re the finished article, to call yourself so requires experiencing a degree of pain to get there. England clearly haven’t yet the correct balance in the backrow nor the midfield and the lack of a jackalling presence in the forwards is so painfully obvious that Jones must scour every single openside on the planet to find someone good enough and qualified to fill the yawning chasm of linking and rucking skill left since Robshaw’s injury. Given time, Jack Clifford may be that man, but right now, Matt Kvesic must be wondering if Eddie Jones realises he is still available.
The lack of such a player was so palpable that England actually appeared to be prepared to concede the contact area and trust the pillar and midfield defence. Sadly, Ireland have a bit more muscle than most and the tactic looked doomed to fail as early as the first ten minutes.
Elsewhere, when the forwards do their jobs and space is given, the handling of Ford, Farrell and Joseph is compelling. Step up a level to the very top tier of New Zealand, Ireland and possibly now France, and there’s a crying need for the physicality and pace of Ben Te’o to start the game. The multi-cultural Warrior is an outstanding centre and of such classical skill set one would hope he is one of Warren Gatland’s first names to tour this summer.
There’s an issue in leadership too. As with the Italian game, England’s mental agility again came up short, and with Hartley’s form neutered by a need to play within the laws and not to transgress, he is not in the top three hookers in England, let alone the unchallenged skipper of the side. In England’s golden era 1999-2003, leaders abounded. In the back row alone all three players led England at one point or another and the thought that a performance of such mental ineptitude would happen on Lawrence Dallaglio’s watch is beyond contemplation.
However, focusing on England’s shortcomings is denuding Ireland’s consistency and performance. This is a seriously streetwise side, capable of matching anyone up front and importantly, having a deep passion and pride in playing for each other and the shirt.
Maybe they’re a bit short of pace and tries in the outside backs, something that is hampering their attack, but up front and at halfback, they’re as competitive as any side in the world right now and probably shade England in this area over the last year or so of test matches.
Looking forward, Eddie Jones’ winning streak was becoming something of an Albatross; a desperation to perpetuate the run had led to perhaps a safety first selection approach and a need to paper over the cracks of imbalance and positional weakness.
Freed of these, England will now have time to examine long term structural solutions to those deficiencies, specifically the back row and midfield.
Both Irish and English players will form the spine of the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand, and both nations’ players will return far better for the exposure and the next encounter between these particular protagonists will be as eagerly awaited as this one was.
Whichever way you cut it, we haven’t heard the last of either of these two sides and the game in the Northern hemisphere is significantly better for their presence.