There was a strong sense of déjà vu watching England play South Africa at the weekend. For the second successive week they stormed out of the blocks, scoring quick, well-worked tries, before contriving to throw away a commanding lead and lose – albeit, from only 12-0, rather than 24-3 the preceding week.
Again, there were big issues with discipline and defence. I went into it in detail last week so will try to avoid doing so again, for as much my own sanity as yours. But alongside this, it is the mentality of the team that is now causing concern.
It is getting exceptionally frustrating as a fan to watch this England side. In the run up to the game, Owen Farrell spoke about the discipline issue, saying ‘We had a good chat about the discipline side of things. I just think we got stuck in a bit of a rut on the weekend’.
Ben Youngs also spoke about it: ‘[Discipline] has certainly put us under more pressure than we needed to.
‘We talked about it and reviewed it heavily … The individuals are fully aware that at the weekend some of those penalties were highly avoidable and unnecessary. If we want to win, we have to cut that down by at least half.’
Well they failed spectacularly there. Still stuck in that rut, they in fact managed to surpass their previous tally of 12 and record 13 infringements, with another yellow card to boot.
What is more exasperating about this is the brain-numbing stupidity of some of the penalties. When the team are crippling their chances at victory through such high levels of ill-discipline, why Mako Vunipola would you reach down and slap Pieter-Steph du Toit in the face when he’s lying at the bottom of a ruck? Seriously?
Same question goes to Nathan Hughes stretching off the floor to smack the ball out of Faf de Klerk’s hands. That earned Hughes a yellow card and was the final nail in the coffin of any possibility of a comeback.
I seriously hope they get taken to task by their teammates over those two infractions. If Mako were not already travelling home, and Billy Vunipola not injured and Hughes a necessary replacement, I would argue dropping them both. Actually I would still advocate dropping Hughes for Sam Simmonds as a response.
Sometimes penalties are unavoidable – when you kill the ball as the final defender or collapse a maul to prevent a certain score, but not here.
More generally, concerns are starting to develop around the players’ attitude. Suffering a losing streak like this as a professional athlete cannot be pleasant, but Ben Youngs’ 10-second interview with Sky Sports before walking away was frankly petulant. No matter what the result, the players are representing their country and owe it to the fans to talk to the media. He has rightly apologised.
I am not sure exactly what allegedly happened with Mike Brown and Joe Marler and a group of fans after the game, but it is another concerning altercation. Jones is an arch-confrontationist himself, and recently apologised to Bath’s Bruce Craig for likening him to Donald Trump (‘he has the same hairstyle’), while there was the furore around those infamous jibes about the Celtic nations earlier in the year.
That these incidents came from three of the most experienced players in the group is also worrying. I am struggling to see leadership and Farrell has an enormous task on his hands to turn the emotion within the team around. A tough ask of a relative novice captain.
More broadly – and despite calling loudly for Farrell to be handed the armband – I was disappointed with his on-field captaincy on Saturday. Mistaken decision not to go for three points before the break aside, he seemed to fail to build a rapport with referee Romain Poite. Loudly confronting and arguing with Poite throughout the match, the official seemed to take less notice of Farrell as the game progressed – he was the antithesis of the composed Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi.
Jones followed up the game by reiterating the 25 players unavailable to him. 25 unavailable there may be, but how many would get into the starting XV or match-day 23? Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell would have a claim on a back-three shirt, but the game was not lost there (indeed, Jonny May was again the team’s best player). Perhaps Jonathan Joseph or Ben Te’o would come into the 13 shirt and shore up the defence, but neither were in sterling form in the latter stages of the season.
The pack is where England are struggling – a fit and firing Courtney Lawes would add something to the second row, while Sam Underhill might be in with a shout. Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole’s reputations have been enhanced by their absence, but neither were setting the world on fire in the Six Nations. Hartley’s leadership is perhaps the most sorely missed attribute. But surely Jones’ excuses cannot do much to boost the morale of those players there in South Africa.
Where do we go from here? Well a win is in dire need. But that is stating the obvious. By hook or crook, Jones needs to wring something out of this group in the third test and get a victory on the board – dead rubber or no dead rubber. Does Jones stick or twist? Back his players to finally learn from their mistakes and adapt, or ring the changes, in the hope that dropping key players will make a statement too strong to ignore.
Come the Autumn and there is no let up, despite being at home, as we face South Africa again, while the long-awaited showdown with the All Blacks and a test against Australia sandwich an easier game against Japan. That New Zealand test was at one point enjoying billing as world number one vs two.
There is no enjoyment from criticising the team. And it is not losing to South Africa away from home – a place where England have not won since 2000 – that irks so, rather the manner of loss and frustrating inability to rectify fundamental aspects of rugby.
An end-of-season break is approaching and the players, England’s Lions contingent in particular, will hopefully benefit from a bit of rest and a preseason. However, right now it is their brains, as much as their bodies, that look in need of some rejuvenation.
By Henry Ker