Positives and negatives from the South Africa tour

jonny may

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.

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

15 thoughts on “Positives and negatives from the South Africa tour

    1. Agree 100%. They’d also allow Simmonds at 8, as that is Exeter’s trick – the two big enforcers on the flanks mean that their 8 doesn’t have to be a behemoth as well. And all three are pretty versatile across the back row. Whether you love or hate Exeter’s style, the three of them are a very effective unit.

      1. Alternatively, why not have Armand at 8? In my humble opinion, that’s his best position. I’d like to see this back row (fitness permitting):
        6 – Simmonds
        7 – Underhill
        8 – Armand

  1. There is an excellent piece in planet rugby today: expert witness : the verdict on England. Says a lot of what I and others have been trying to articulate about Eddie. Thoroughly depressing though as it confirms my sense of waste in relation to a large group of talented players being managed in the wrong ways.
    I don’t even know what we can infer from the last test given the selections by Erasmus and the match losing presence of Jantjies.

  2. Negatives outweigh the positives by quite a margin for me.
    Several players didnt produce, several trod water, several definitely took a step back and several didnt even get on the pitch!
    Two players were resounding successes : Johnny May and Tom Curry. Both played consistently well.
    Thereafter we are looking at a number who put in the odd decent game and contributed the odd decent moment. I’m afraid some just didnt do themselves justice and may discarded. From a 3 test series, that really isn’t a great return.
    Losing 1-2 is a major negative. Playing so poorly in the first 2 tests is a major negative. That we pulled ourselves together for the 3rd test and played a bit better was much welcomed, but across 3 tests our level of performance wasn’t up to scratch.
    We still have big questions on our best XV, on the 9-13 positions, on the back row make up and the pecking order in multiple positions. Are we really going to persist with Farrell at 12?
    Quite how we take 3 SH’s on tour, disregard one completely and only give 10 minutes exposure to one more strikes me as completely idiotic. Its not as if Youngs was tearing it up.
    The coaching was uneven, as it has been for the last season. Our forward play lacks authority and defensively we were all at sea at times. Losing Gustard may be no bad thing, but you have to ask just what Hatley and Borthwick are doing with the players.
    And Eddie Jones? Prickly at times and over defensive. He plainly isn’t getting the best out of the players. I suspect they are being over trained and over coached. Sometimes less is more.

  3. I always thought Jonny May was a bit of a one trick pony a few years ago, but he has really developed. Hopefully he can keep injury free next season and keep his form going into the world cup.

  4. Ben H
    Remember also how the Japanese players were desperate to get rid of him and his marionette training sessions! There were anecdotes of people hiding under tables rather than face him!
    What does this say about his infantilising grown men?
    Campese also said he would force people to rigidly stick to his game plan and England would be robotic under him.

  5. I am not unduly concerned. Selection may have been quirky but I saw a huge amount in the first 20 minutes in tests 1&2 to say this is not a bad team.

    My view is more structural. I do not believe the premiership is capable of supporting and producing success for England at international level. So much of Irelands capability at the moment is governed by control of players and England’s core looked exhausted…

    I also have a theory which most think is extreme but I believe Jones has set up to test against extremes recently – and I think will have learned a lot from this tour. Add to that the well of experience having good pre-seasons for the first time in ages i’m not too worried about 2018/19. I always anticipated a dip in results and genuinely think a growth phase will begin again.

    However, I was concerned that Lozowski and Robson did not play -more worrying was the lack of presence from Nathan Hughes, a player I defended significantly until he proved me wrong one too many times…..

    1. I know its a wild theory and probably more hope than reality but is there a chance that Eddie is holding back on selecting Robson so that he comes into the team at the world cup as a bit of an unknown element to the opposition. Have them all setting up for Youngs and Care and then throw a maverick into the mix. he has had him in a few training camps and has watched him plenty in the prem so he knows what he is capable of

  6. Plan A works if teams can’t play against it, one of our main problems, said it before lack of Plan B, closely followed by lack of depth in key areas.

    Picking Cipriani is a smallish turn a different player to Ford but can clearly play for the team now but also turn it on when needed plus Ford is the only 10 in the side, some argue Farrell is but he hasn’t moved any further away from 12 than the number 13 and we need Robson WE NEED HIM! Youngs and Care just are to predictable.

    Nathan Hughes needs to be dropped and forgotten, every game, not just this series, every game he has deputised for Billy in he has failed to excite and as a fellow commenter said previously his body position is to high and that’s why he get’s tackled and fails to make yardage.

    Now is the time for Daly to be tried at 13 and possibly some back three rotation including Brown, Watson and Nowell as full back covers continues to worry.

    I must applaud Jonny May though, previously a harsh critic of his, I used to refer to him as The Crap Tailor as he always cut inside, I echo the comments in that he now has a good Rugby brain to back his blistering pace and backs himself in a straight line and also goes looking for work.

  7. A win’s a win? I suppose. Important? Probably, but more for Jones than his team? England will learn a lot from the tour? But what exactly? This ‘learning’ utterance is often trotted out, but I don’t recall ever seeing specific ‘learned’ lessons being listed. I’ve opined often that England have issues @ breakdown & midfield, but has Jones even recognised these? If so he’s shown precious little in demonstrating he has done so. After 3 years, there’s no discernible change in patterns of play let alone having an established back row or inside back line to address these problem areas. For me, Jones has become the issue for England, not the solution. He seems to lack the capacity to grasp with & therefore address, these problem areas for his team. Sure, some repositioning of, or trying players in some positions may help, but they need to have a better game plan to implement better plays. He also needs to confirm his captain. This will also likely have some bearing on team performance. Whether the Premiership is an effective ‘school’ for aspiring international players, is @ best debatable. If the clubs play different styles, e.g., it doesn’t help England, but it is what it is & SCW won a WC with it. Central contracts, a national playing style & a franchise system between club & international level might also be effective, it would all require major surgery & I don’t see that happening anytime soon (ever?). As said, it is what it is & the WC’s beckoning. England have the players, numbers certainly & also some skilled enough, but do they have nous @ the top to fully utilise them, especially in pivotal positions within effective playing patterns good enough to win that big silver jug next year? That is the ?

  8. Many good points in there Don. The AI’s will tell us an awful lot about “learning experiences” and what needs to improve “going forwards”. I suspect but hope i’m wrong, that we’ll see Ed go back to the tried and tested in terms of players,particularly at hooker and in the back row in general.
    That may work short term but will only serve to highlight the missed opportunity of blooding young/fringe players if the old boys fail to turn things around. It’s all getting a bit messy…………

  9. Acee
    Regrds. From a selfish POV, it will likely trouble the SH in the autumn & during the WC if Jones’ does address the now exposed cracks in his rugby game ‘plan’, so I hope he doesn’t adapt accordingly. However, as you point out, the AI’s may indeed show more. Could win 3 of 4? Or the lot? However, it will be telling, which you also mention, as to how England play & whom they pick, personnel wise, to do so.

  10. Good articles in the Rugby Paper today by Guscott and Cain. Both saying much the same thing which is concerning in itself.
    Jezza thinks ,like myself,that Mr Ed will go back to Cole, hartley etc for the autumn. We won’t win the W cup with kids but at the same time we are way behind the other home nations in terms of blooding new talent which, given the respective sizes of player bases ,is bloody ridiculous.
    Personally, i think we are in a parlous state. If the oldies go well against the ‘boks and NZ,we’ll be convinced that the SA tour was merely a blip in Ed’s great plan for world domination. conversely, more defeats and dull performances leave us up pooh creek with a year to go and no time to really set matters straight.
    Hopefully, and i genuinely mean this, at least one of the other three home nations will do well at the worldie, even if we stink the place out!


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