Sometimes, when things aren’t going your way, you need to make a change – but on Saturday Eddie Jones left his back-up plan rooted firmly on the bench. It seems England’s ‘Finishers’ are no more. We are back to having mere ‘replacements’.
Against a tenacious Wales, English fans’ expectations got a healthy reality. Not only were England facing a more settled and effective back-three unit, able to more comfortably deal with the kicking game, but the gameplan’s execution was also off. England just kept turning the ball over. Wales ended the game with a worrying 65% possession and 68% territory. And what little ball England had, they were ineffective with.
Ed Alexander has already discussed where it all went wrong for England, but for me the most surprising element was Jones’ refusal to trust his finishers to step up where his starters were falling short.
The key period in which the match was lost was between about 50 minutes and 68, when Cory Hill scored a try to put Wales ahead for the first time. England put a kick out on the full, knocked it on a couple of times and conceded several penalties. It felt like they were tiring after such an attritional match and it all compounded to turn the momentum towards Wales. The crowd got behind them and you felt suddenly, for the first time in three games, England were in real trouble.
During that period Wales made three changes (on 61 minutes), including bringing on Dan Biggar – the player who would deliver the coup de grace in the 78th minute – and had brought on every replacement by the final whistle.
In contrast, Jones did not look to make substitutions beyond what was absolutely necessary. While Harry Williams came on for Kyle Sinckler on 57 minutes, that was cautionary move as Sinckler had given away a few penalties. Joe Launchbury joined the fray on 64.
Beyond that, we had to wait until the three minutes from time to see Ellis Genge and Brad Shields (an injury replacement) come on.
Our reserve hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie and halfbacks Dan Robson and George Ford never made it onto the pitch.
You compare this to 18 months ago, when Danny Care and Jamie George would replace Ben Youngs and Dylan Hartley like clockwork midway through the second half. Jones coined ‘finishers’ because he wanted to highlight the vital contribution they make, going so far as to refer to the replacements as such in press releases and being careful to mention what impact they would have in press conferences. It wasn’t just about the starting XV; the game would be won with the full squad.
After Australia game in the Autumn 2017 series, I wrote about this dynamic: ‘Youngs does his thing for three-quarters of the game, then Care comes on to revel in the chaos of the final minutes. There is no player better suited to the role than Care’.
That feels an age ago. Now Youngs is being asked to play the full 80, even in games like this one when he was far below his best. That Hartley is out injured may explain Jones’ reticence to replace George, but Care has simply been discarded – despite some great form for Quins. Supposedly Robson has been brought in because he will be the World Cup back-up nine, yet Jones seemingly doesn’t trust him enough to bring him on as a game changer when Ben Youngs is having a bit of a shocker.
Jones has does have previous form here. Ben Spencer was on the bench as the reserve scrum half in South Africa and got a grand total of 11 minutes across the first two tests. He didn’t get on the pitch in the third.
George Ford has 53 caps, was England’s starting 10 for the first couple of years under Jones and has been a captain in the past. Yet he wasn’t backed against Wales and brought on to offer a change in style? The change in tempo would have asked different questions of Wales; England could have moved Farrell out to 12 and allowed Manu Tuilagi to benefit from more space at 13.
When asked about the decision not to bring on Ford and Robson, Jones said: ‘We just felt it wasn’t a game that opened up at all … In certain positions, we needed to make changes and in others we needed to stick at it.’
The brutal physicality of England’s gameplan asks a huge amount of the tight-five forwards (Jamie George made 24 tackles in total) and the game was crying out for some renewed energy up front, but again Cowan-Dickie wasn’t brought on.
That’s not to say the substitutions would have definitely made the difference. We were only losing by four points after Hill’s try, so maybe Jones didn’t want to upset the dynamic and backed his team to find the score. Was changing half-backs too dramatic a switch? A show of lack of confidence? Admitting failure with your gameplan? No, every player has an off day, and Jones has hardly shied away from making a dramatic substitution far earlier in the game in the past.
But it is surely detrimental to an emerging test player like Robson, that when it comes to the crunch your coach doesn’t back you to help turn the game. He didn’t get a single minute in the victory over Ireland, even when England were guaranteed the win, and just the 10 in the thrashing against France. At this point, surely it would be better to bring back Care, given the England coaches aren’t even finding out whether Robson is capable of being a test nine.
Jones has pointed out before that the game is not won with 15 players, but 23. Yet right now he is trying to do it with 17, maybe 18. If players like Robson and Ford are not the answer when the game is slipping away then Jones should look at changing his bench and bring back players like Care, or even Cipriani. Sometimes you have to twist; Eddie needs game-changers he will back to win a match in the balance.
By Henry Ker