It may be only the first match of four but Saturday’s encounter with South Africa will make or break England’s autumn. They are expected to beat Japan and an ailing Australia and are expected to lose to New Zealand. South Africa is the one which can go either way and which will decide whether Eddie Jones’s team finishes under or over par.
Jones, as is his wont, has already pleaded mitigating circumstances with injuries but he overstates the case. He has the pick of all his leading backs, bar Anthony Watson. And while it may look a callow England pack, the only positions with a significant drop off between first choice and stand-in are 1 and 8 with the Vunipola brothers.
Granted they are two enormous gaps for any side to fill and Jones deserves sympathy for the fact that his hitherto first reserves in those positions, Joe Marler and Nathan Hughes, are both unavailable. But elsewhere, Brad Shields may have been picked ahead of Chris Robshaw anyway and George Kruis has interchanged with Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury for years. Yet I cannot remember being more concerned by an England forward pack against a Springbok side which has rediscovered its physical edge.
And let’s not forget that South Africa are shorn of some of their most influential players due to their clubs not releasing them (a topic for another day). The absence of Faf de Klerk, Willie Le Roux and Francois Louw robs them of their 2 leading playmakers and their main breakdown exponent, as well as a heap of experience and leadership. At home, a year out from the World Cup, England should be confident of beating a team missing these leading lights.
But back to that callow-looking England pack. What stands out alongside the lack of caps is the absence of real beefy ball-carriers. The only dynamic close-quarter carriers are Kyle Sinckler and Maro Itoje. One assumes the selection of Mark Wilson over Zach Mercer, who along with Brad Shields prefers the wide channels, is an acknowledgement of this shortcoming. This is where the two Vunipolas are so irreplaceable, exacerbated by the absence of Lawes. This team’s best pick and go exponent is Jack Nowell.
It begs the question of how we find ourselves in this position. Quick front-foot ball has been an issue for England for some time – pretty much since Big Billy’s injury troubles began – and you only get that with proper ball-carriers. This year against Ireland, France and South Africa, England have been blown away on the gain line. Their weakness at the breakdown has gone on far longer but they have been able to get away with it through physicality on the gain line, with and without the ball. It is very hard to be effective at the breakdown when you are on the back foot.
For the lack of both ballast and experience, Jones’s selection is wide open to criticism. None of these problems are new, rendering non-sensical the absence of big carrying beasts such as Dave Attwood. It also exposes the folly of persisting with Dan Cole for so long, and to a lesser extent with Chris Robshaw. Honest players both, but hardly men to strike physical fear into the opposition and to send them scrambling backwards.
On the plus side, the selection of Ben Teo and the return of Manu Tuilagi will provide some forward momentum in the backs. This is welcome as they have become one-dimensional and easy to defend against once the opposition figures out they won’t be coming through the middle. The real selection decision was actually between Ford and Slade as Jones was, fitness-permitting, always going to select Farrell and a big carrier. But Teo and Tuilagi are only going to be effective if they get quick clean ball to have a proper run at the defence.
Am I being too negative? I have actually picked England to win narrowly on Superbru. But a year out from the World Cup against a weakened Springboks at Twickenham, an England win should be a no-brainer.
Regardless of the result, in Eddie’s England Odyssey from 2015 World Cup humiliation to 2019 World Cup glory, it currently feels like they’re far closer to the starter blocks than to the finishing tape.
By Stuart Peel