Exclusive to Rugby Unplugged's 2020 Guinness Six Nations coverage, we bring you weekly analysis every Wednesday on Eddie Jones' England Rugby, from journalist and Rugby Writer James While.
Stade de France - Sunday 02 February 2020
KO: 16:00 HT: tbc Att: tbc
Referee: Nigel Owens
T: Rattez, Ollivon (2) C: Ntamack (3) P: Ntamack
T: May (2) C: Farrell (2) P: Farrell
Man of the Match: Grégory Alldritt
WHEN Eddie Jones said ‘let’s get physical’ during the build-up to this epic fixture, one can only assume that he was alluding more to Olivia Newton John than he was Mike Tyson, in terms of his definition of that particular word.
The scoreline of 24-17 flattered England. Yes, they were doughty in ambition but appalling in execution and impact. 23 knock-ons, 11 incomplete passes and five penalties added up to a mistake every 1.2 minutes of the 47 that the ball was in play.
Jones’ selections were masterful in engineering his own side’s downfall. To play one player out of position in the back row may be deemed unfortunate, to play two is downright careless. The recalcitrance of Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry in defending the short side came from neither player understanding their position, nor the defensive system fully. This was compounded by Ben Youngs abdicating all responsibility for sweeping up the scramble behind the primary defence, errors which cost England two tries.
Cros, Alldritt and Ollivon on the other hand were inspired and put in a complete performance that would have been the envy of any of the great back row trios. Perfectly balanced in roles and assured in positional understanding, their effectiveness at the collision was exceptional, and ably supported by an unsung hero’s performance by Bernard Le Roux.
France have always had talent but have lacked structure, fitness and organisation. Their new crop lead by the magnificence of Antoine Dupont looks something of a rare harvest. The desire and ambition characterised every French face with compelling leadership from key areas of the team; witness the normally shy Gaël Fickou encouraging his troops and bellowing for more and it tells you that this side are here to do business.
It was somewhat inevitable that Shaun Edwards, unwanted by England (despite his obvious canvassing of his availability), would engineer the downfall of his own nation. The French defence oozed pace, agility and organisation, hallmarks of Edwards’ coaching style, to dominate the collision. However, equal plaudits must go to the unsung French attack coach. Laurent Labit, whose kicking strategy delivered by the admirable Dupont and Ntamack caused no end of problems for the English back three defence, in particular debutant George Furbank who was given a torrid bombardment. This plan was augmented by the terrier-like chasing of the back row and wingers Teddy Thomas and Vincent Rattez, resulting in tries for three of those four players.
The concern now for England is two-fold; firstly, the recurring groin injury to Manu Tuilagi removes the one last big carrier England had left from the World Cup. This is compounded by the fact any changes for Scotland will be made on a five-day turn around, thus making it unlikely that Jones will introduce fresh faces to his squad. In truth, the complete lack of effectiveness by England’s back row and centres calls for the selectorial addition of either Nathan Hughes or Alex Dombrandt in the back row, along with some much-needed muscle in the centres. However, England’s midfield cupboard is pretty bare at the moment and it adds insult to injury that the emerging talent of Nick Tompkins has been whipped out from under Eddie’s nose by Wales. In the front row, Ellis Genge was the only English forward to emerge with an enhanced reputation from Paris. His bullocking runs rejuvenated a lacklustre England whilst the power of his scrummaging was the foundation that created England’s two late scores. It is time for the baby rhino to be unleashed and, provided he can control his emotions, he could be the catalyst to turn around England’s fortunes in Edinburgh. Jones too must consider the balance of the back five of his pack to add beef and line out presence to the indisputable effort of his troops.
At half-back, Ben Young’s days must now be well and truly over; this is compounded by the fact that his understudy, Willi Heinz, is almost 34 now. It is surely time to allow Ben Spencer to cast aside his Saracens frustration and contribute a full 80 minutes in an England shirt. In the back line, it will be a case of waiting on injury reports, with Anthony Watson sure to resume at 15 if fit and Ollie Devoto on standby to start if Manu fails his fitness tests.
Murrayfield is a key game for Jones; lose this and the prospect of being beaten twice at home by Ireland and Wales must be of huge concern. Despite England’s relative success in the World Cup, on yesterday’s showing, England are in grave danger of emulating the form slump of the illustrious 2003 World Champions Side. They must now take nothing for granted, return to common sense, well selected and pragmatic rugby and look to win the next game in front of them rather than in Jones’ rather optimistic words ‘be the best side the world has ever seen’.
15 Anthony Bouthier* 14 Teddy Thomas 13 Virimi Vakatawa 12 Gaël Fickou 11 Vincent Rattez 10 Romain Ntamack 9 Antoine Dupont 1 Cyril Baille 2 Julien Marchand 3 Mohamed Haouas* 4 Bernard Le Roux 5 Paul Willemse 6 François Cros 7 CHARLES OLLIVON (C) 8 Grégory Alldritt BENCH: 16 Peato Mauvaka 17 Jefferson Poirot 18 Demba Bamba 19 Boris Palu* 20 Cameron Woki* 21 Baptiste Serin 22 Matthieu Jalibert 23 Arthur Vincent
15 George Furbank*14 Jonny May 13 Manu Tuilagi 12 OWEN FARRELL (C) 11 Elliot Daly 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Jamie George 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Maro Itoje 5 Charlie Ewels 6 Courtney Lawes 7 Sam Underhill 8 Tom Curry BENCH: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie 17 Ellis Genge 18 Will Stuart* 19 George Kruis 20 Lewis Ludlam 21 Willi Heinz 22 Ollie Devoto 23 Jonathan Joseph
BT Murrayfield - Saturday 08 February 2020
KO: 16:45 HT: 0-3 Att: tbc
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère
T: Genge C: Farrell P: Farrell (2)
Man of the Match: Sam Underhill
EDDIE Jones is a man of both sound judgement and soundbites.
Pilloried by the press for his sometimes unconventional selections, it’s somewhat ironic that England’s Murrayfield win was one based upon the excellence of the much criticised trio of opensides, Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam and Sam Underhill, who pillaged and pilfered all day to send their team to a 13-6 win in horrendous conditions.
Let’s make no mistake about this; the weather was the worst seen at any international in many a year. Driving rain, gale force winds and sleet conspired to turn the game into a gamble, where even executing the simplest of tasks was an absolute lottery.
With 74 kicks in the game in a total ball in play time of 47 minutes, 17 skill errors and 11 incomplete passes, this was a match for the scrapper not the purist. However, it says everything about the mental fortitude of England that they found the way to win in the most inhospitable of arenas.
Yes, there were some errors- lots of them in fact. The performance of Willi Heinz at half-back was one of nightmares and the nine shirt remains a huge issue for Jones, complicated by Ben Youngs nearing the end of his career. The midfield looked unbalanced and lack creativity but in fairness, those conditions would have tried the skills of Jonah Lomu himself.
Moving forward, the team still needs a tweak or two. For all Ludlam’s industry, the claims of Ted Hill, Alex Dombrandt and Jack Willis must be tested over 2020. Ollie Devoto could be the big centre England so desperately need when Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade are injured.
But the key thing here was England won and won well. Steered by an impressive George Ford, the performances of Ellis Genge, Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry will soothe a lot of English nerves and shows just how far four of Eddie’s ‘project players’ have come in the four year cycle. Elsewhere, George Furbank stood up well to a full back’s worst nightmare in terms of weather conditions and Johnny May displayed a skill set that might just be now complete.
When Jones inherited this England side, he acquired a team full of talent but one short on confidence. His method initially was to get England to play the basic power game that he believed characterised their brand, whilst working hard to bolt greater ball handling and strategic skills into his charges.
Over four years, that’s changed England from a team of white orcs to a pacey handling side that play all-condition rugby. They perhaps don’t have the power of teams of old, but their ability to adapt and win in a given situation has improved greatly.
It appears strange, therefore, that Jones himself is ever at odds with the media. His interview post-match on Saturday unusually oozed distaste for comment, something perhaps driven by the propensity of the media to be totally binary in opinion regarding any win or lose his team delivers.
But there’s method in his madness; believe it or not, Jones rarely does anything without meticulous planning and robust reasoning. His attention to detail knows no bounds and his work ethic is mind blowing. Believe it or not, his throwaway lines are crafted deliberately and maturely, knowing the press will lap up his quotes and use them as ammunition. The key here is that Jones doesn’t want his players caught up in press chat. He wants them focused and unharried. His approach is ‘let them tear into me, not the players’ and his actions protect those in his player group.
When you’re recalibrating your team post-world cup, you want time to experiment. Jones knows the talent he has available and he knows what he’s trying to achieve. It would assist all greatly if he were judged fairly and without the knee-jerk polarity of opinion so often seen in modern media.
The message from this weekend’s showing is clear; we’re not the finished article yet, we don’t claim to be, but we’re a top class side evolving into world class one.
Bear with us. It’ll be worth it.
15 STUART HOGG (C) 14 Sean Maitland 13 Huw Jones 12 Sam Johnson 11 Blair Kinghorn 10 Adam Hastings 9 Ali Price 1 Rory Sutherland 2 Fraser Brown 3 Zander Fagerson 4 Scott Cummings 5 Jonny Gray 6 Jamie Ritchie 7 Hamish Watson 8 Magnus Bradbury BENCH: 16 Stuart McInally 17 Allan Dell 18 Simon Berghan 19 Ben Toolis 20 Nick Haining 21 George Horne 22 Rory Hutchinson 23 Chris Harris
15 George Furbank 14 Jonny May 13 Jonathan Joseph 12 OWEN FARRELL (C) 11 Elliot Daly 10 George Ford 9 Willi Heinz 1 Mako Vunipola 2 Jamie George 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Lewis Ludlam 7 Sam Underhill 8 Tom Curry BENCH: 16 Tom Dunn* 17 Ellis Genge 18 Will Stuart 19 Joe Launchbury20 Courtney Lawes 21 Ben Earl* 22 Ben Youngs 23 Ollie Devoto
Twickenham Stadium - Sunday 23 February 2020
KO: 15:00 HT: 17-0 Att: 81,476
Referee: Jaco Peyper
T: Ford, Daly, Cowan-Dickie C: Farrell (3) P: Farrell
T: Henshaw, Porter C: Cooney
Man of the Match: Courtney Lawes
ENGLAND’s rumbustious 24-12 win versus a weary looking Ireland on Saturday saw a welcome return to form for Eddie Jones’ men.
Much has been made in recent weeks over Jones’ rather eccentric positional selections, where he appears to have cast aside any thought of positional speciality in favour of getting the most talent XV on the pitch.
With locks on the flank, flanks at eight and three quarters in the back three, many have criticised roundly the Head Coach’s selections. But, in this instance, his innovations in the back line created the win England so desperately sought.
The victory was hewn by the ability of England’s playmakers at 9, 10, 12 and 15 to vary points of attack and to move the Irish defence around the pitch. Time and time again, England used Elliott Daly, Owen Farrell and George Ford to detach as a kicking pod to barrage the Irish back three. This was augmented by using the remaining backline as a chasing pod, with pace from Jonathan Joseph and Jonny May combining with physicality from Manu Tuilagi to create challenge and mayhem in the Irish ranks. This is technical rugby of the highest attention to detail and Eddie got his selections and tactics absolutely right, of that there’s no doubt.
The much-maligned Ben Youngs also played a pivotal role; his kicking and decisioning were flawless and he was actively playing with his head up looking for the options around him. Whilst Conor Murray looked slow and hesitant, Youngs was quick in both thought and deed, re-establishing himself as first choice once again. In short, his strong stewardship was a telling factor in the battle of the scrum halves.
Up front, the pack were compelling too. Man of the Match Courtney Lawes was massive in collision and tackle, stepping into the ball carrying role England so desperately need with the enforced absence of Billy Vunipola. Jones has made the point time and time again about picking a balanced pack rather than just a balanced back row and with the shifts put in by Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler and, later on the game, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie, one can see his point.
The flanker debate might yet change dynamic in two weeks’ time, as England’s player of 2018/19, Mark Wilson will almost certainly return into the match day 23 from his 3-month injury battle. Wilson is one of those few players that can genuinely play across the back row with equal impact and has played something like half his senior career at No 8. Whilst Jones is almost sure to start with the same pack that beat Ireland, Wilson’s ability as a true eight will really add to England’s options moving forward for the rest of 2020 and help redress the imbalance that’s been shown so far by shoehorning locks and flankers into that shirt.
By contrast, Ireland offered very little. They seem to be in a state of limbo, not sure which legacy players to keep or which legacy tactics to use. On Sunday’s showing, their back row looked pedestrian and underpowered. They’re fine when the game is a tight attritional affair, but the moment the ball gets into the wide channels, their comparative lack of mobility to the dynamic England trio was sorely exposed. Andy Farrell is sure now to look to Caelan Doris as a starter to add much needed ball carrying to their pack, with the added bonus that Peter O’Mahony, the player likely to make way, could come off the bench in the last 30 minutes to add leadership and ball winning to the side when trying to close games out.
At halfback, Conor Murray’s glacial-speed performance must be of huge concern; he was clearly niggled and targeted by the English pack, pulled and pushed into rucks and generally destabilised to disconnect his service to Johnny Sexton. In truth, Ireland’s best periods came when John Cooney replaced Murray, and perhaps it’s now time to reward the Ulsterman with the starting jersey.
Looking forward to the next round, at the time of writing Ireland’s trip to Italy is in serious doubt due to health concerns. England, on the other hand, will welcome the visit of an underperforming and quite unsettled Wales. Jones will fine tune the side, with the possibility of Ellis Genge starting, Mark Wilson adding his skills to the replacements and, hopefully, a first bench outing for Alex Mitchell, the lightening quick Saints half back.
As we roll onto the 4th round of the tournament, England look to be back on the up-slope and it’ll be interesting to see their further progression in a week or so’s time.
15 Elliot Daly 14 Jonny May 13 Manu Tuilagi 12 OWEN FARRELL (C) 11 Jonathan Joseph 10 George Ford 9 Ben Youngs 1 Joe Marler 2 Jamie George 3 Kyle Sinckler 4 Maro Itoje 5 George Kruis 6 Courtney Lawes 7 Sam Underhill 8 Tom Curry BENCH: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie 17 Ellis Genge 18 Will Stuart 19 Joe Launchbury 20 Charlie Ewels 21 Ben Earl 22 Willi Heinz 23 Henry Slade
15 Jordan Larmour 14 Andrew Conway 13 Robbie Henshaw 12 Bundee Aki 11 Jacob Stockdale 10 JONATHAN SEXTON (C) 9 Conor Murray 1 Cian Healy 2 Rob Herring 3 Tadhg Furlong 4 Iain Henderson 5 James Ryan 6 Peter O’Mahony 7 Josh van der Flier 8 CJ Stander BENCH: 16 Ronan Kelleher 17 Dave Kilcoyne 18 Andrew Porter 19 Devin Toner 20 Caelan Doris 21 John Cooney 22 Ross Byrne 23 Keith Earls
Twickenham Stadium - Saturday 07 March 2020
KO: 16:45 HT: 20-9 Att: 81,522
Referee: Ben O'Keeffe
T: Watson, Daly, Tuilagi C: Farrell (3) P: Farrell (3), Ford Genge Tuilagi
T: Tipuric (2), Biggar C: Biggar (3) P: Halfpenny (2), Biggar
Man of the Match: Ben Youngs
THIS was a game where retrospectively the result seemed to matter not.
A wonderful display by England for 70 minutes, marred by 10 minutes of lunacy at the end, saw the hosts dispose of their Welsh visitors 33-30.
Let’s be honest about this; the scoreline flattered Wales in the same way wallpaper covers structural cracks. They were not at the races, and they were smashed on the gainline, destroyed in the scrummage and humiliated tactically.
The gulf between the two sides from 8 months ago in Cardiff was canyon deep and only a piece of genius just after half time, followed by some fortunate cards, engineered by the imaginative, very sharp-eyed and proud South African TMO, Marius Jonker and delivered under his instruction by on-field referee Ben O’Keefe, brought the scoreboard into respectful territory for the hapless Welsh team.
England’s victory was based upon three key ingredients.
England’s pack decimated their opposite numbers in the set piece, with Joe Marler giving Dillon Lewis an absolute schooling in the art of test rugby propping; the plump Welshman was completely unable to counter the muscular Marler’s control of height and power of forward direction and, in old term rugby parlance, was lucky to finish second in a two horse race.
Secondly, that physicality was also evident in the breakdown and gainline exchanges, where the craggy Cumbrian Mark Wilson continued where he left off in 2019, with a peerless display of pressure defence and scrapping, aided and abetted by the rest of the England forwards.
Thirdly, efficiency; every time England got the ball, so points followed. A possession stat of England’s 36% to Wales’ 64% tells us two things- firstly how efficient England’s attack is, and secondly, how confident they are in they are in the John Mitchell coached D, which allowed them to let Wales to have the ball and look to turn them over and strike. Wales managed to create just the one proper opportunity in 70 minutes and it was only when cards were brandished and English players were sent off, that they managed to stagger through the heroic defence of Eddie Jones’ 13 men.
Welsh woes are completely compounded by the predictability of their midfield. When you’ve got the fridge-like hands of Dan Biggar and Hadleigh Parks in the receiver positions, you could have Cullen and Lomu outside them and they’d not see the ball all day.
The imaginative poach of talented English youngster Nick Tompkins has allowed Wales some go forward this season and he was exceptional again, but it says a lot about the state of the Welsh youth system when their three quarters fielded two Englishmen and a Kiwi journeyman. Their team relies upon regular raiding of others’ stocks and it must be a concern that nine out of the 23 players on the team sheet on Saturday were recruited artificially rather than developed naturally.
Despite many infringements and reckless tackles by the men in red, one of which saw Hadleigh Parkes almost decapitate English centre Manu Tuilagi, it seems unthinkable that a moment of intended humour from England’s stoical loosehead, Joe Marler, has dominated the headlines.
For sure, the game doesn’t need to see what the prop did, but the lack of reaction and outcome from the gesture showed that at worst, the incident was silly, at best it was innocuous. Alun Wyn Jones said as much himself, trying desperately to avoid the questioning of tabloid generalists at the press conference, until he finally gave the standard answer and said “World Rugby will deal with it”. Hardly the crime of the century given the state of Tuilagi’s forehead and Johnny May’s bulging and bruised temple, but undoubtedly, the faux media furore will sell a few more redtops in Haverfordwest and Llanfair Caereinion.
In the grand scheme of things, England will be quietly happy and very pleased with their day at the office. Jones saw many things go well - the display of Henry Slade at fullback, the ongoing excellence of the midfield, and the absolute reliability of Wilson. More frustratingly, England now won’t play until the summer at the earliest, and the team would have relished a run out in Rome. England’s end of season score card will have a pretty big tick for most in the game. They’ve lost world class players through injury, learned a lesson in Paris, but have emerged as the most consistent side in the competition.
For Wales, there was little to be proud of, not least the bad taste that the post-match shenanigans have left. They were poor in contact and conduct and the scoreline flattered them greatly. One hopes a greater degree of self-honesty will be seen in their analysis than was shown in the press this week.
There is one small take out for all to remember though; the hotly promoted Welsh wine might be best avoided this season - the fruit is said to be of a particularly acidic nature.