Scrambled selection moving England’s forwards backwards

Eddie Jones

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

20 thoughts on “Scrambled selection moving England’s forwards backwards

  1. I think too much had been asked of Mako-he was
    Expected to carry loads, hit loads of tackles and rucks oh and scrummage as well. His weakest point has always been the scrum so maybe by the enforced selection of Hepburn, it lets the rest of the pack start picking up the slack on carrying and tackling. Same with the absence of Lawes and launchbury. I have no doubt this back row on paper is balanced in fact the whole pack is balanced but we’ve not seen them play yet and if they can operate as a unit instead of individuals then our backs should see decent ball

    The concerning thing for me is less than a year out and EJ hadn’t ever thought of a plan b if billy v is injured and manu isn’t fit!

    1. M just Rich. Excuses. NZ have contended with 5 out of their pack this yr & that’s not to mention their backs! Jones could & should have blooded more players from the world’s biggest pool over the past 3 yrs instead of sitting on his hands & talking about x3 for each position, instead of soaking up the plaudits over this period. The buck stops with him!

        1. In the scrum Hepburn is hardly a lesser player. Also Simmonds was hardly used by Jones when fit so besides the Italy game during 6N it is an excuse that he is absent. That being said, with both the Vunipola’s out, Jones has run out of ideas with what is (or should be) the biggest playerpool worldwide. Two positions out of 15 hardly weaken a squad. Looking at the likes of De Klerk, Mostert and Le Roux I’d say the Boks are more weakend. Obviously England can still win it, but what concerns me is that it would be without a general idea.

        2. M J Rich
          You miss the point. Fact. Jones simply replaces the injured & unavailable. Like NZ did. All teams have injuries. Some don’t omit viable, experienced replacements & have contingency plans by blooding ‘3 for every position’ instead if talking about it. England may win, but would have more chance with better replacements. Sure you’re not really Alex D?

          1. Nope he’s not but as of today i’m back and will be here to check, double-check, query and generally pick your offerings apart!

            1. AD, frontal lob was it? Let you out permanently, or do you have to check in from time to time? Pick away, but do try to be objective once in a while. Tall order I know, but fingers xxed! Hope EJ’s picks are good enough for nxt Sat. Might need yr help, er, maybe not. You might start off by calling him a bigot or an idiot! Especially now that a few of his fellow antipodeans in yr ‘English’ team are out injured. Perhaps he flogged them too hard, too often. Fingers xxed again!

              1. Always confident when up against you. Personally ‘turned you over’ several times head-to-head like with the infamous PI issue. Looking forward to repeating the pleasure ad infinitum. Onwards and upwards.

    2. Like Don says, you have the biggest pool of players yet Jones always stuck to his one-trick game plan. With Simmonds and Mercer you have different style of nr.8’s which Jones refused to use. Same for the big muscle like Armand or Ewers. Jones should have come up with a plan B years ago. Besides the Vunipola’s, England doesn’t miss that much players, not like the Boks at least (Mostert also missing), it’s just Jones’ weird choices (Shields doesn’t cut it right now) so yes he is responsible.

  2. Do we really have that much of a drop off after Mako? Yes, in terms of experience, but not so much in ability in my opinion. Was Marler retiring EJ’s fault. We may never know. As for 8, there was always going to be a drop off after Billy V was injured. He is world class, but not having a ball carrying 8 is EJ’s decision, and not the fault of injuries as he jettisoned Ben Morgan, who has experience and is in form. Yes we have some locks out but Itoje is arguably our first choice and Kruis is a good player, in what is probably our deepest position of strength. Therefore for me there are no excuses for EJ. If we lose this, it shows that he just isn’t cutting it.

    I also ask whether beating Australia is ever “expected”? Not so sure myself.

  3. This article covers some old ground. Also, I wouldn’t too sure about Oz’s being ‘ailing’ either. Didn’t ‘t look it recently v Argentina, especially in the 2nd 1/2. They still need to cut out errors (whom doesn’t?) & finish better (whom doesn’t?), but they were pretty competitive v NZ last time, so I don’t expect a cake walk. The SA game WILL likely go either way, unless it’s a draw! However, with their pack power most punters seem to expect SA to dominate up front & therefore with the expected possession, to prevail against an ‘under gunned’ England. I agree that Jones has made too much of his injury issues, especially when some important omissions are self inflicted. Also England’s pack is only partially callow @ international level, specifically @ LH prop & back row. There again, @ 8 in the back 3, Jones chose not to go for experience. Agree about lack of recognised ball carriers. Atwood indeed & Morgan could have helped mitigate this area of deficiency. And this stuff about the Vunipolas being ‘irreplaceable’ indicates limited thinking. Would Mako have really dominated a SA or NZ front row? And Billy. When he’s out, it’s like day of national mourning FCOL! He’s a ball carrier sure, but as previously stated, this very attribute also makes him predictable. Is he likely to run through an expectant Kiwi defence like a string vest in a WC? He can be effective, but he can also get lost in open play & can’t jump. To rely on 1 person like England seem to do with him, is to set themselves up for a fall. Particularly in having no planning in place for a replacement; like Morgan for instance, who does have other qualities. Part of a plan ‘B’? I’m not sure why England should automatically expect to beat a SA side a year out from the WC just because it’s @ home. Not when they’ve just pushed NZ so hard. It’s about the hear & now, not some nebulous expectation based on past history or perceptions. And BTW, Cole & Robshaw, whilst not necessarily striking ‘fear’ into the ‘opposition’, they are experienced. A team needs this attribute during a WC, even if they’re only used as ‘finishers’. Additionally, with the reintroduction of Teo & Tui, how will this give England momentum? What England need in midfield is guile, not just more bosh. More so if they’ve become ‘easy’ to defend against. Daly would be the obvious choice here, surely? And as for Farrell ‘always going to play’ @ 10, isn’t this just retrospective wisdom? Why? He’s never consistently played there before under Jones. Smacks of a hair dryer pick for me. As primarily a points accumulator via the boot & a tackler, he de-skills the line. He doesn’t enhance it when compared with the form Cipriani who’s cooling his heels yet again after only 1 game in a 100 years! Farrell’s sudden selection is merely reverting to type, the old R1 mentality, when the need is for a bold & immediate injection of back line innovation. Sure England need quick ball, whom doesn’t again, but this is the back 3’s domain, rather than just relying on ball carriers? In a WC, predictability & lack of skill won’t work. With invention allied to basics, it might. This article isn’t necessarily negative, England do have legitimate concerns, it’s just that some of the interpretations of these are somewhat skewed. Also some proposed solutions are off the mark IMO. If these (views) are not part of the solution, then they are part of the problem (who said that?). This is worrying as EJ seems hold similar opinions. Yikes!

    1. Some good points DonP – apart from the fact that you rate Farrell as a tackler. He’s not. He’s a really, really poor defender.

      Watch the 3rd test between the ABs and the Lions. He missed 5/6 tackles with hopeless attempts.

      1. Buzz, perceived him as being perceived as a defender. Don’t have Lions access, or recall that it was the 3rd test, but I do recall that he missed touch, goal, catches in 1 test, which may well have been the 3rd.

    2. As i think i stated six months ago much to your disbelief, Eddie is belatedly into Stage 2 of his tenure-ship. I’m quite happy with him dropping Cole, Robshaw and Brown. Why? They were the old guard and part of stage 1. Cole was a bow with a single string – a scrummager with nothing else around the park. Robshaw was still frail in his decision-making and a yard short of pace whilst Brown was never the link-player.
      I guess stage 2 is going ok with one out of one.
      Teo and Tuilagi can provide the route 1 get go with OF at 10. That is the purpose of the selection presumably. None of us should pretend to know more than Eddie and i for one don’t presume to be able to do a better job. The only person purporting to possess the nouse to do a better job is you Don P!

      1. Ouch AD! Welcome back! Have you noticed that I’m yr ONLY fan?
        And you’ve got a big fat bagel under ‘thumbs up’. Wonder why this is? Perhaps yr nous (not nouse, never heard of it) is AWOL?

        1. I don’t pathetically look around for plaudits (unlike you) Don’t need them.
          You on the other hand obviously do…..clearly by your own admission, no?

  4. I just wanted to be the first to comment on Tuilagi’s withdrawal from the squad. I think EJ needs to give a deadline to whether or not he will include Tuilagi in his RWC plans. Perhaps, say, that if he is not available for the 6 nations then his race is run.

    A tough stance this may be but even worse than Tuilagi being unavailable for the RWC would be muddied thinking about his selection just a few games out from the tournament. Even if he does have a barnstorming end the premiership season his injury tract record would be too great to rely on him. His game influences everything about the way a team plays (perhaps in the same manner as Billy), so I’d like to see EJ cut our loses…

    1. i worry that Billy is becoming Manu mk2 injury wise. As someone has already said, Jones is starting to get caught out by placing so much faith in a certain type of player and a one eyed playing style.
      Playing Wilson at eight today may very well pay off but then you have to ask will EJ cement him in as Billy’s back up or will we have another selectorial merry go round before the WC?


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