A dogged 25-10 victory over South Africa in the third and final test restored some pride for the English team after an increasingly tough 2018 threatened to run away from them.
The conditions were wet and didn’t lend themselves to the fast running game of the first two tests, which perhaps suited England’s natural game, but there were definite improvements in some of the areas which had undermined them previously – notably discipline and defence.
A long and demanding season, exacerbated by the Lions tour, is finally over. As the players head for a much-needed break and preseason, time to weigh the positives and negatives from the tour and take stock of where England are in their journey to the World Cup in Japan next year.
Firstly, a win is a win – it will have been a huge relief for the players and the coaching team. To have gone into the summer break on the back of six test losses (seven matches including the Barbarians game), and with a good few months to stew before their next game in the Autumn series, would have been incredibly disheartening. This victory was so important.
As mentioned, the discipline was vastly improved from the previous matches. England played smart rugby for the first time in a long while, adapted to the referee and were pinged just six times – in contrast the Springboks leaked 14 penalties. It just goes to show what an impact this has; the roles from the first two tests were reversed and England left with the win.
As for the players, several stood out and put in top-class performances. Joe Marler had his best game in an England shirt for as long as I can remember, while Tom Curry has developed as this series went on, getting better with each minute of experience. He is a genuine option for the back row in the long term, and with Sam Underhill to come back, England are starting to have depth on the openside. You add to that the emergence of Brad Shields, more experience for Newcastle’s underrated Mark Wilson and the excellent way Chris Robshaw responded to being dropped with a hard-working display in this third test and England’s backrow is looking better than it has in a long time.
Alongside this, England are building an embarrassment of riches in the back three. Jonny May was undoubtedly England’s player of the series – he has matured into a fine test winger and is starting to realise his raw potential. We always knew he had incredible pace, but his brain seems to have caught up with his talent and his work rate and running lines as a world away from his game of a few years ago.
Added to May, while no one initially liked the idea of Mike Brown playing on the opposite wing, I was very impressed generally with his performances. He showed some very good moments and could certainly do a role there if called upon. Then you have England’s usual first choice players Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell to come back, as well as Elliot Daly. Jones has some tough decisions coming.
And of course, then there was Danny Cipriani – forcing himself into the test team for his first start in 10 years, when just a few months ago he seemed miles away and on the verge of quitting England rugby for a windfall abroad. I was worried that he may respond to this ‘last chance’ by trying every trick in the book and attempting to win the game single-handedly, but instead he produced a measured and mature performance. Cipriani bided his time (he didn’t touch the ball for the first eight minutes), played the game in front of him and did what was best for the team. Then there came that one opportunity in the 72nd minute and he nailed it. Somehow, he got the kick away, perfectly weighting it for May to chase down.
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There have been some questions around whether Cipriani and Farrell can really play together – the whole ‘two alphas can’t work together’ argument. I don’t buy it – Farrell managed to work with Johnny Sexton as a 10/12 partnership in the Lions tests and I don’t think there is a more dominant and controlling flyhalf than Sexton. Top players can put aside their egos for the good of the team and if Cipriani and Farrell represent the best option for the team, they will make it work.
Although we can rightly celebrate this victory, we shouldn’t just forget about very real issues which have dogged England recently. Yes, the discipline was better, but it is clearly a problem area so England need keep focused on it and back it up consistently with disciplined performances in the Autumn.
If problems start to creep back, then swift decisions need to be taken over the players with a zero-tolerance policy. After Mako Vunipola flew home for the birth of his son, Joe Marler came into the side and turned in a very strong performance in his place. Most importantly of all, he didn’t concede any penalties – something Mako was frustrating guilty of on a regular basis recently. That is the kind of thing which could earn Marler the starting shirt.
Then there is the Elliot Daly conundrum. One of the brightest talents in the backline – and seemingly pushing for world class status on the back of the last couple of years – Daly had a bit of a mixed bag in his extended run at 15. What to do with the Wasps back will be one of the toughest decision for Jones in the Autumn. Does he continue with the fullback experiment, revert Daly to the wing, or perhaps move him into his preferred position at 13?
On the subject of 13, that is another problem area. Henry Slade had a run of three games there and, the odd nice touch aside, did very little of note. This has been one of the more unsettled positions throughout Jones’s tenure – Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o have both been solid without cementing their place. Someone needs to take ownership of the shirt and quick, it is too important a position to leave unsettled.
There is also a lack of depth in other positions – we know little more about the scrumhalf options after Jones frustratingly opted to give Ben Spencer a scant few minutes and ignore Dan Robson completely, while the Billy Vunipola shaped hole continues to be an issue. Nathan Hughes was average (his humbling by Faf de Klerk in the third test a particular low-light) while there is sense that Sam Simmonds doesn’t fit the game plan and reliance on a sizeable presence anchoring the scrum. Beyond them the cupboard is pretty bare.
Jones has likely blooded all the players he will take to Japan by now. There may be the odd last minute wildcard (Jack Willis perhaps) but otherwise it is a case of drawing a squad from the existing names. Does he have the necessary players? Maybe. If the first-choice team are all fit, I would back them to compete with the very best. What concerns me is that continuing lack of depth should injury or form strike someone like Billy Vunipola or Ben Youngs.
In that sense, Jones may have missed a trick on the South Africa tour. However, England have hopefully righted some of their issues and there is certainly reason for cautious optimism again after a painfully tough run.
Time to look forward to the rematch with South Africa at Twickenham to kick off a defining autumn series.
By Henry Ker