Monday, 20 March 2017

Winning Run Over: What Next for Eddie Jones’ England Rugby Team?

England lost to Ireland at the weekend and in doing so suffered the familiar experience of being awarded the Six Nations Championship having lost a game in an opposition’s stadium with the Grand Slam having eluded them. This has happened twice before in Dublin; in 2001 and 2011, yet there was the consolation this time around that this tempered disappointment comes off the back of a previous Grand Slam, not to mention 18 match winning run that has seen them rise to the number two side in the world, beating Australia, Argentina and South Africa along the way.

It was a turgid game on Saturday, the rain and wind making for a tight spectacle and in that environment a fired-up Ireland side with a point to prove were always going to cause problems. It should not be forgotten that they themselves have beaten both New Zealand and South Africa in the past 12 months and have a number of incredibly physical and effective players, especially in their pack. When it comes to an intense rush defence, solid set piece and effective kicking game, they are probably the best around at executing in such conditions. As it was, it was a game too far for England, who looked shaky, error-strewn and lacking in physicality and precision, especially in the set piece and breakdown. 13-9 was a reflection of how they managed to remain within a score of Ireland, but in truth Ireland were just much better on the day.

So what next for England? There is a natural break in International rugby whilst the domestic and European season reaches its climax, during which Warren Gatland will select his Lions tour party to New Zealand. Many expect that this will contain a high number of Englishmen, which will give them exposure to a Lions experience as well as taking on the best team in the world (England haven’t played New Zealand for several years now owing to the bizarre and erroneous fixture planning and unless the RFU manage otherwise, this might not happen until the end of 2018). While the Lions are in New Zealand, Eddie Jones will take an England squad down to Argentina for a couple of tests and the success of that series is probably the main outcome that will prosper as a consequence of the weekend’s loss in Dublin. By that I don’t necessarily mean the probability of England winning those matches, more so the likelihood that Eddie Jones will use the tour to experiment with some newer players in certain positions, perhaps freed from the “burden” of having to continue the winning run. 

This being the case, the extent to which this experimentation may occur will depend in part on which players make the Lions tour in the first place and here Jones might not be dealt any favours by the balance of the touring part in areas that England are expected to contribute. If we look at the team from front to back, there is a definite strength in the tight five (especially the second row) as well as the 10/12/13 axis and wing positions. Players such as Cole, Itoje, Launchberry, Ford, Farell, Watson and Daly are highly likely to feature in the party, but their absence will be taken in Argentina by players already on the fringes or playing a part role in a typical match day 23. An area such as the back row, which is at times fragile and certainly not deep in terms of international standard talent is unlikely to provide many Lions with the exception of Billy Vunipola and possibly at a stretch James Haskell. Therefore, Jones needs to decide whether he is going learn anything from taking Wood, Harrisson and Williams to Argentina or whether it is time to look at some younger alternatives. If not in the summer then when?

Certainly among these I would finally expect Sam Underhill to feature, now that he has moved to an English club and is therefore eligible for selection. He is still young and developing, but has all the necessary attributes to suggest that he could become a genuine 7, combining great defence with an ability to jackal and link player with the backs. It is not clear if the highly promising Sam Jones at Wasps will have recovered from a broken leg sustained in the autumn training camps, but if so then he would also be a candidate to feature. Will Evans at Leicester is another vying for the openside slot, though he is still very young and not always present in the match day squad at Tigers, so it remains to be seen if Jones will be prepared to select him. Aside from these younger prospects, there is the continued question of whether Matt Kvesic will ever get another chance to show England what he can do at 7 (with a summer move to Exeter perhaps galvanising his chances) plus the presence of Mark Wilson at Newcastle Falcons who would offer an alternative option at blindside.

Away from the backrow, England’s options at 1 and 2 are vast and deep and even if Marler, Vunipola, Hartley and George are selected by the Lions, the likes of Mullan, Genge, Taylor and Cowan-Dickie are on hand to offer superb, skilful and aggressive options at loose head and hooker respectively. At tight head, the options do not run so deep with Dan Cole likely to make the Lions squad, once we get past the highly-promising Kyle Sinckler there are almost no options available, at least none with any experience to note. One hopes that some of Bath’s talented front row will return from injury to add some substance. In the second row, assuming that Launchbury and Itoje will tour (there is a chance that Lawes could join them), Kruis might return from injury to make the Argentina trip (he is in my opinion our best second rower) which would then make room for players such as Atwood to return. To complete the pack, Nathan Hughes might be joined by Ben Morgan who still has much to offer internationally at 8.

In the backs, most positions are strong, especially on the wings, and the likes of Henry Slade and Ben Teo are likely to benefit from the Lions taking away some of England’s first choice players. However, two positions of weakness that do need addressing are scrum half and fullback. Here, England have perhaps turned an ill-advised blind eye to nurturing talent over past seasons, with Care never being considered a first choice starter and Ben Young continuing to lurch alarmingly between world-beater in one game and inaccurate, cumbersome distributer in another. Surely this is a case for Dan Robson at Wasps and Ben Spencer at Saracens getting some game time in the summer. At full back, Mike Brown continues to divide opinion, yet even his biggest critics must accept that he is at least solid and dependable with a great boot. Where he is found lacking is in his distribution, but the puzzling thing about the Jones era thus far is that, aside from a brief cameo from Alex Goode in the autumn, no other fullbacks have been tried, meaning that England are just an injury or loss of form away from having an open wound in what is a crucial position. One would assume that either Daly or Watson will eventually be tried in the role, but if one or both find themselves on the Lions tour then there could be a slot made for Alex Lozowski this summer.

Selection is perhaps the biggest challenge and responsibility that an international coach has, but England would be unwise to think that this is the be-all and end-all for this development of this team. One thing that has been evident from this Six Nations is that England do not have as much dominance and precision in their pack when two or three first choice players are missing and this needs to be addressed to ensure that this platform is always laid, especially against the best in the world. The interchange between 9 and 10 also needs work, both strategically (see Ireland’s tried and tested game plan) and practically (see Young’s abject performance against France). Moreover, the ability of England to compete consistently at the breakdown against a world class back row and / or a ferocious defence has to be a target in the next twelve months as this team continues to develop.