Welcome to the Virgin Media Midweek Kick-off! As England prepare to fight for their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003 this weekend, we ask sports writers Paul Rees and Dan Masoliver whether England under Eddie Jones are good enough to compete with rugby’s big boys in the Southern Hemisphere…
Yes, England are unstoppable
“Jones has added a touch of mongrel to England’s thoroughbreds” – Paul Rees, rugby correspondent, The Guardian
One of the sobering moments last Saturday at Twickenham was when Wales' iconic second row Alun Wyn Jones was taken off with 20 minutes to go. One of the world's leading players in his position had been eclipsed by England’s 21-year old Maro Itoje, who was making only his second start in a Test. Itoje is one of a crop of young players breaking through – Jack Clifford, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade and Paul Hill are others – and in most positions coach Eddie Jones has a choice of at least three players. Selection will be key and he has kept faith with George Ford at outside-half, despite the player's underwhelming club form this season, because he gives England width. One of the players' observations in the World Cup review was that with so many coaches, especially behind the scrum, messages became garbled. Jones is in sole charge of England's attacking strategy and has brought a clarity that was badly missing. And this is only the start.
England are by some way the richest union in the world, but since the 2003 World Cup success, they have made nowhere near enough of their playing and financial resources. A common denominator after Sir Clive Woodward left in 2004 was a lack of consistency in selection that became reflected in performances on the pitch. It was a trend that looked to have ended under Stuart Lancaster, but it only lasted until the World Cup, when there was a loss of nerve before the group match against Wales and the wide men became narrow boys. Eddie Jones, in contrast, has largely kept the same team throughout this Six Nations, and the changes he has made have turned out to be masterstrokes: the choice of Dylan Hartley as captain, for one, and shifting Chris Robshaw to blind-side flanker. England are now the sum of their parts.
Style & substance
Jones said after England's elimination from last year's World Cup, before he had been approached to take over from Stuart Lancaster, that too many imported coaches tried to copy New Zealand and that distinct national characteristics were becoming blurred. England over the years have built a reputation for set-piece proficiency and mauling – facets of their game that deteriorated in the World Cup. Under Jones, normal service has resumed and a signal feature of the victories over Ireland and Wales was England's burgling of opposition line-outs. There was a hint of the All Blacks in both these performances in the way England took on the two countries who had won the Six Nations since 2011, and if the finishing was not Southern Hemisphere quality, that will surely come. Jones has added a touch of mongrel to thoroughbreds and the nous that was missing for so long has returned. He has done so by ignoring two of the Test game's precepts: no specialist breakaway and no midfield bosher.
The Eddie factor
Eddie Jones is preparing for his fourth World Cup with a fourth country and he has only tasted defeat in the tournament twice; in the 2003 World Cup final when England beat Australia in Sydney and last year when Scotland defeated Japan. In between, he was South Africa's technical advisor when they overcame England in the 2007 final in Paris having thrashed them at the group stage. He said at the end of that campaign that he wanted to be involved in the 2011 event because he regarded the World Cup as the ultimate for a coach. He sat it out, but showed in leading Japan last year, when they became the first team to win three group games and fail to reach the quarter-finals, that he has a feel for the competition like few others.
Kings of the North
To look at the lack of European semi-finalists in last year’s World Cup and put it down to a gulf between North and South is to miss the point: the difference was not so much between the hemispheres as between the All Blacks and the rest. The Wallabies were hanging on at times against Wales, who then came within five minutes of beating South Africa to make the last four. Ireland were mauled by the Pumas in Cardiff but were without a number of injured players. The Six Nations requires endurance, starting as it does in one of the bleakest months of the year in Europe, while skill is a requirement of the Rugby Championship, but when South Africa won the World Cup in 1995 and 2007, and Australia in 1995, they embodied English qualities, such as set-piece efficiency and defence. And they were experienced, as England should be in 2019.
No, this is a false dawn
“England will still be embarrassed by any antipodean side they face” – Dan Masoliver, sports editor, Virgin Media
It’s awfully tempting to get swept up in the excitement of England’s apparent revival, with this year’s Six Nations all sewn up with a week to go, and a first Grand Slam since 2003 a very real prospect. But remember, this is largely the same England side that was unceremoniously dumped out of last year’s home World Cup. What has changed? A new coach, sure, and the introduction of a couple of talented youngsters – but the real answer is simply that the nation’s expectations this time round were set at an all-time low. After all, how could this Six Nations campaign be any worse than the uninspiring performances back in September? As Leicester City have proved in the Premier League, it’s a lot easier to win when no-one – including your opponents – backs you to. But as fans and pundits start to get their hopes up, and when the pre-World Cup pressure mounts, there’s nothing to suggest that this England side will be equipped to cope.
Before it even began, this Six Nations marked the beginning of a “rebuilding period” for basically every team in the competition. Only a few weeks ago, Wales’ own coaching staff had criticised their players’ lack of decisiveness in the try-scoring department. Ireland, meanwhile, off the back of two successive Six Nations victories, had lost most of their key players and were in even more turmoil than England. With their opposition weakened, there’d never been a more favourable moment for Eddie Jones’ men to cruise to victory. Even the draw worked in England’s favour, with the toughest games on paper, against Ireland and Wales, played with home advantage at Twickenham, and comparatively comfortable away trips to Scotland and Italy. In a year’s time – let alone almost four, until the next World Cup – the home nations will put up much more of a fight as they “do an England” and integrate up-and-coming players into their squads.
No match for the South
The Rugby World Cup showed the massive gulf in class that has opened up across the equator. On the North side of the divide, teams still rely on a dated combination of reputation and battering-ram style-offense, while the Southern Hemisphere nations are mixing powerful athleticism with a devastatingly nimble passing game. The creative brand of rugby on show from the likes of New Zealand and Argentina wasn’t just infinitely more exciting to watch than England, Wales, et al, but exponentially more effective. England may yet claim the Grand Slam against France this weekend, but as long as they remain wedded to the Northern style of play, they will continue to be embarrassed by any antipodean side they face off against.
Eddie Jones’ men may have scored the most tries during this Six Nations, but that’s not the only table they top – England’s players also hold the dubious honour of being better acquainted with the sin bin than any other team. Throughout the tournament, ill discipline has been a major issue, not only individually – such as Joe Marler’s transgressions, which may yet land him with a month-long ban – but also collectively. England have conceded 51 penalties already this campaign – an average of more than 10 per game, and 25% more than any of their rivals. The casual ease with which England give up penalties is genuinely problematic: it means giving up both field position and cheap points, and better opponents than they have faced so far will punish this embarrassing lack of maturity and self-control.
Owen Farrell is a superb player, and has served his country admirably in each of his 39 appearances for England, but is he the world-class fly-half who can step up and drive his team forwards on the biggest stage? The evidence suggests not. While he’s enjoyed an excellent Six Nations thus far and has shown remarkable consistency in his kicking game, England’s win percentage with Farrell on the field is still only 65%. Farrell is a fine player, but still falls short of the (admittedly high) bar set by a certain Jonny Wilkinson, whose own win percentage for the national side was 73%. To compete on a world stage against the big boys of rugby, England need a new Wilkinson – it’s a big ask, but without that defensive prowess, tactical nous and strong leadership, they will continue to fall short.
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