England stuck in quicksand as tour to South Africa looms
A summer Test series turnover to South Africa seems inescapable unless England address the many factors that led to their Six Nations slump.
In the final round of fixtures, Eddie Jones’s team lost 15-24 to champions Ireland at Twickenham, and ended up finishing a lowly fifth in the table.
But even beating the Irish to pour cold water on their St Patrick’s Day and Grand Slam parade would only have papered over the problems that England currently face.
As it was, Jonny May’s last-minute try was not enough to spare the blushes of the lacklustre hosts who, across the tournament, could only amass 10 points more on the pitch than whipping boys Italy.
A crisis? Jones and his players don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, so long as the debilitating issues that led to England’s worst finish in 41 years are addressed – and quickly.
Despite Sir Clive Woodward’s claims that England are now “staring down the barrel”, a summer resurgence against the Springboks is well within the realms of possibility. But the amendments and adjustments needed are four-fold.
An imperative product of any successful breakdown; however England’s ruck was comprehensively pulverised during this tournament, pilling immense pressure on the distribution of scrum-halves Danny Care and the returning Richard Wigglesworth, who had a torrid time against the Irish.
The decision to field an ebbing James Haskell was met with hostility from fans. As Jones plots to turn water into wine come June, he should look no further than 21-year-old open side Sam Underhill, who is expected to make his return for the SA series.
Although the ruck showed slight improvement against the Irish, it was still a far cry from the standard needed to see off the Springboks – and to stand any chance of beating New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
If the sound captured by referee Arund Gardner’s mic is to be trusted, the need for better discipline is a sentiment England captain Dylan Hartley shares.
Cries of “Discipline!” could be heard from the Saints hooker as he watched his side yet again make basic errors in transition and with ball in hand.
The Red Roses continued their Six Nation trend of ragged unruliness, but added an absence of composure against the Irish. This impacted on the scoreline, with England giving a way far too many penalties in all thirds, allowing a pressure lapse and the visitors to effectively pull their socks up.
England’s ability to finish a game strongly quickly becomes null and void if they trudge to the changing room 16 points down at the break. And although one of Jones’ best qualities is his ability to galvanise a squad, the discipline problem is as May suggested “an individual thing”, and improving it depends on strength of character.
A backline make-over
The decision to drop George Ford and rotate the backline came with no overwhelming improvement to the fluency of midfield play. England’s running lines were very basic and predictable, giving very little option for Farrell to imprint on the game in Twickenham’s biting winds.
Jones does, however, admit to be flirting with the idea of introducing a specialist backs coach, but the problem stretches beyond that to the need for succinct passing moves and outside running lines.
Ireland’s defence seldom looked like cracking against the English, with Ben Te’o left bewildered and the dynamic centre position a real problem.
But whisper it quietly, Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester form appears to be carrying some sort of international promise. And should he be included (if fit) in the summer, a centre of such ferocious stature with such an ability to commit defenders as he does, should go some way to fixing the problem.
Rest and recuperation
A hangover from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour was inevitable. The statistics corroborate this, with England’s previous string of three defeats following the 2005 Lions Tour, and they went on to lose six consecutively.
The tumult and exhaustion of this year’s Six Nations campaign was transparent, with England’s Lions having played as much as double the club rugby as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish counterparts, resulting in increased calls for centralised contracts in the days following the Irish invasion.
Calls that will come to no avail, however, as the RFU’s current deal with the Aviva Premiership detailing club control over players, runs until 2024, meaning the boys will have to just suck it up.
The good news is, Jones seems to be entertaining the idea of resting some of his Lions this summer, which bodes well for the future of young talent and the development of the team.
England’s defeat to the Irish was not for lack of effort, but they looked sapped of all sustained intensity needed to compete on an international stage.
The media talked up the team’s regression, but a lot of this was just hyperbole. But coming in a week when Jones’ disparaging comments at a sponsor’s event about the “scummy Irish” came to light, it was apt that Joe Schmidt’s men underlined their status as Europe’s power players.