Sunday saw a 45-63 drubbing for England at the hands of a fired up Barbarians side. It was a record number of points conceded by England at Twickenham, as the BaaBaas – spearheaded by the likes of Semi Radradra, Josh Tuisova and English-exile Chris Ashton – drew England into a glorified game of sevens and seemingly tore their defensive line apart at will. That England responded with 45 points of their own will be scant consolation.
England were effectively a scratch side themselves, shorn of key players involved in the Premiership final the day before, but half the team were still experienced regulars: Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Mike Brown.
Off the back of a disappointing Six Nations, this was hardly the warm up match Eddie Jones would have wanted before they embark on a famously-physical tour of South Africa.
A one-off humbling or symptomatic of a deeper malaise?
Context is needed – as mentioned, this was not a full strength England side. Missing key individuals involved in the Premiership final and with a lengthy injury/’not considered for inclusion’ list, this was a non-cap match and should not carry the same weight as previous results when analysing how good this England side are. It was also a very, very good BaaBaas team – bolstered by some of the all-stars from the likes of Toulon, their backline in particular was freakishly good. Few sides in the world have been able to deal with Radradra when he is in that kind of form.
However there is still cause for concern. The basic point is: top teams should beat the Barbarians. The nature of an invitational team means there is little chance for them to get the kind of structures in place – whether defensively or in the set piece – that you need to take on the best teams. That England failed to capitalise this fact was an issue. They didn’t dominate possession, drawing the Barbarians into a tactical dogfight to stifle their attacking instincts – for example, how many lineout mauls came to nothing or resulted in a turnover to the opposition? This has been a frequent issue for the English team.
Added to the 63 points conceded here, England shipped over 20 points in their final three games of the Six Nations. While the breakdown issues were often cited as the key problem area during the tournament, given the number of points scored against us questions have to be asked about our defensive system. Indeed, although I think Paul Gustard has done a fantastic job generally (and wish him all the best at Harlequins) have England and their defensive system failed to adapt to the way the game has changed, or are the personnel struggling to execute it properly. Perhaps, sadly, it would have been time for a bit of a shake-up in defence anyway.
England reliant on Saracens contingent
England just are not the same side without their Saracens core. The Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell are central to England’s gameplan and systems of attack and defence.
Given the inspiring performances from all of those players (in particular, take a bow Mako) this England side will be a totally different proposition when are all included.
What is concerning though, is that level of reliance – in particular the ballast of Billy Vunipola (absent in the Six Nations) at eight is so vital to the way England play. Nathan Hughes is an enthusiastic back-up, but Sam Simmonds (although a great player) or Zach Mercer (who played there at the weekend) do not replicate that. Should Billy, or Farrell or Itoje, suffer an injury before the World Cup, I really worry how England would cope.
Of course, every side would suffer if it lost its best players, but – as evidenced on Sunday – there is a very dramatic drop off in quality for England between some of their first-choice and second or third-choice players currently.
Thirteen shirt up for grabs
Ben Te’o is the latest injury announcement and will be sitting out the tour with a quad injury. With the other usual first-choice candidate, Jonathan Joseph, also missing out, there is a bit of a conundrum about who will feature at outside centre against the Springboks.
Henry Trinder had impressed Jones during the training camp but suffered a head injury early in the BaaBaas game and had to withdraw without an opportunity to show any of what he can do in attack, rather just having his name tarnished a little by the collective abject defending. Jones has opted against calling him up for the tour. Yet another disappointment for such a talented player.
Meanwhile, in the Premiership final, the next in line, Henry Slade fluffed his lines with a below-par showing. Alex Lozowski was comparatively quiet when set beside some of the other Saracens backs, but by nature of the injuries and Slade’s performance has probably leapfrogged to the front of the queue – will we see an all Saracens centre partnership?
Daly, however, could now be in the running. Alongside Tom Curry and Jack Singleton, he was one of the few England players to emerge with some credit against the BaaBaas. Jones had slightly surprised us by announcing he wanted to give him a run at 15, but fate makes fools of us all. Daly shifted up to outside centre to cover the injured Trinder early on in the match, and with Jones’ opting to bring in a fullback (Jason Woodward) rather than another centre to cover Te’o, this may suggest he has already torn up that plan and intends to shift Daly up into the centres. My personal preference would be for him to play there – he is a class operator and he needs as much ball as possible, although he would benefit from the extra space at 15 and could do a great job there. Basically he is a bit wasted on the wing…
However, that there are serious question marks over a number of key places in the squad – not least, fullback, outside centre and in the back row – is not an ideal situation at this juncture of the world cup cycle.
Are England training players too hard?
To look beyond just the weekend’s match, alongside Te’o, Bath loosehead Beno Obano was also announced as a casualty of the training camp.
The latest in a long line of such injured players, Obano looks set to be on the sidelines for up to 12 months after he suffered ‘multiple ligament and hamstring tendon damage’. From Bath alone, there have been bad injuries in past England training camps to Tom Ellis, Dave Attwood and Anthony Watson, while earlier this year Sam Underhill ruptured a toe tendon, which meant he missed the end of the Six Nations. Then there’s former Wasp Sam Jones, who had to retire following his horror injury in his first England camp.
These are all ‘fluke injuries’, but that’s a lot of flukes. Some, like Bath owner Bruce Craig, believe there is a common denominator. ‘The level of injuries in these training camps is totally unacceptable,’ he told The Times. ‘What is going on in the camp? There is obviously an issue because of the number of injuries. There has got to be significant questions asked about duty of care. At Bath, we’re not having cruciate ligament injuries in training. I am unsure of whether the players are not being taken to levels that are unacceptable.’
Jones response to Sky Sports News was typically curt: ‘We prepare players for Test matches. I don’t think anyone at a club has the right to tell a coach how to train a test team … I don’t have any concerns. We train appropriately for Test match rugby … I haven’t seen any figures to suggest they are [unacceptable], no-one in our staff has suggested they are, but Bruce is obviously an expert in training-ground injuries, so I’ll have to be subservient to his greater knowledge.’
Ouch… burn. And while I certainly do not claim to have ‘greater knowledge’ of this situation, the fact is, as Craig said, there are a worrying number of serious injuries happening in England training camp.
Not only that, but – as many of us commented at the time – some of England’s players looked knackered during the Six Nations. Yet they then come back to their clubs and suddenly look revitalised? Those same Saracens players who featured on the Lions tour and looked almost dead on their feet were world class in the Premiership final. Mako Vunipola played over 30 games this season and was still man-of-the-match at the weekend.
Something doesn’t add up.
By Henry Ker