Three questions England still need to answer before the World Cup

Danny Care

Now the dust has settled on the 2019 Six Nations, we can reflect on England’s campaign. In the end it feels like something of a missed opportunity. Second place is certainly an improvement on last year’s fifth, but although we made progress – with an impressive victory over Ireland and demolitions of France and Italy – two poor halves against Wales and Scotland rather soured the taste.

Of course, the big prize in 2019 is still up for grabs. Unless you have been living under a rock, you will know that this autumn the World Cup takes place in Japan. Between now and then, England have four warm up games to ensure they are ready to take on the best in the world for the ultimate accolade.

The squad seems to be coming together – Eddie Jones clearly knows the majority of his starting team, bar a bit of fluctuation in form, and probably has most of his wider squad pencilled in. However, after the Six Nations, there still remain a few key questions that need to be answered.

Who is the back-up scrum half?
The curious case of the back-up nine really is a head-scratcher. While Ben Youngs is Jones’ preferred option, his second choice remains unclear.

Danny Care had been the favoured replacement scrum half for the majority of Jones tenure. However, he seems to have fallen out of favour. He was dropped for the South Africa tour, reinstated for the autumn internationals, before – following a messy match against Japan – being dropped again for the final game against Australia. He was then nowhere to be seen in the Six Nations.

The veteran Richard Wigglesworth was the man to replace him in the autumn, collecting a further two substitute caps, while Ben Spencer was the preferred reserve for the South Africa tour. Dan Robson finally got his long-awaited shot in the Six Nations, before being ruled out due to an unfortunate injury.

However, both Spencer and Robson were used sparingly; Spencer now has three caps for a grand total of 18 minutes, while Robson has two caps for a total of 28 minutes. That is just over a half of rugby in total between them. Both were also left on the bench for the duration in significant matches – Spencer in the third test in South Africa, Robson in both the Ireland and Wales matches.

Jones doesn’t seem to know who his preferred reserve is, and even when he does decide, there is the impression he doesn’t wholly trust them.

Come the World Cup and England need to know who their best players are. Should an injury befall Youngs and it all gets a bit worrying. Care and Wigglesworth, while experienced, do not seem to fit the bill, while both Robson and Spencer are barely experienced at test level.

Jones needs to settle on his back up nine and quickly. And if it is to be one of Robson or Spencer, also get them some meaningful minutes in the warm-up matches.

Who are their game-changers on the bench?
As well as a reluctance to play Robson and Spencer, Jones generally seemed reticent to use his bench in the Six Nations. Where previously we were looking at England’s replacements as one of their key strengths, suddenly they seem to be a weakness – at least in the eyes of their coach, who didn’t seem to trust them to either kill off a tight match or turn the momentum when the team is struggling.

We have often talked about England’s depth of player resources, but depth is not the same as strength, and there seems to be a feeling that some of the substitutes do not cut it when compared to the starting XV.

With Dylan Hartley out and Jamie George starting, Luke Cowan-Dickie has not been backed to make a difference in the same way George used to be when replacing Hartley. With Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes injured, Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels were not considered to reinforce George Kruis and Joe Launchbury – rather number eight Nathan Hughes was the nominal lock cover. Hardly an optimal situation.

Another curious choice was to give Ben Te’o the 23 shirt against Scotland. Although an excellent player and strong candidate to be the starting 12, he is limited in that he can only play centre, leaving us light on back-three cover. Alongside that, is he the kind of game changer capable of finding a moment of magic?

Although a number of these missing players will return – and perhaps solve this issue for us – there will always be injuries. If Jones does not feel he has the players, not only capable offering proper back up in key positions, but also that he feels confident in to win a game hanging in the balance, England could find themselves in trouble.

Is there any room for Anthony Watson?
There is a key member of the England squad who risks becoming a forgotten man at the World Cup. Missing for over a year due to a serious Achilles injury, Anthony Watson is finally preparing to make his comeback in the next couple of weeks.

Still only 25 – and with 36 caps, including three from the Lions tour in 2017 – Watson is a brilliant talent. He was a fixture in the team before his injury and was actually Jones’ first choice to take over at fullback when it was decided England needed more creative attacking play than Mike Brown was offering.

However, international rugby waits for no man. Since then, Elliot Daly has taken over at 15, and while he has not fully convinced everyone he is defensively a test fullback, his attacking vision has been excellent. Jonny May has blossomed into arguably the form wing in world rugby and England’s kick-chase game plan is tailor-made for his particular skillset.

Add in the industry of Jack Nowell – clearly a Jones favourite – the emergence of the powerful Joe Cokanasiga, return to form of Mike Brown and the homecoming of the poaching king Chris Ashton from French exile, and Watson’s role in the England set up looks unclear. Particularly with what looks like (if Bath do indeed miss out on the Premiership play offs as expected) a maximum of four domestic games remaining for him.

Other mainstays of the England squad, such as Chris Robshaw and Jonathan Joseph, have shown that breaking back into the squad after a prolonged absence is easier said than done. With only 31 men going to Japan and a likely five back three players, competition is fierce. On his day, Watson is the kind of x-factor player and game changer England cannot afford to be without. But is there the space or time for him to return to the fold?

What do you think are the key questions still hanging over this England team?

By Henry Ker

24 thoughts on “Three questions England still need to answer before the World Cup

  1. They need to learn what Plan B is, when a game isn’t going their way. This was their downfall, I believe, in both the Wales and Scotland games – and in the arena of a World Cup, will expose, and ultimately, defeat them.

  2. The 1st ? should be, is Jones fit for purpose? Whereas a team needs upwards momentum going into the big 1, Jones has seemingly perfected a technique for his team’s peaking & then nose diving! With irrational picks in some key roles (e.g., the now liability Farrell, fallible Daly), combined with intransigent tactics, which have lost England games which they probably should have won, I can’t but wonder whether Jones in the middle of some sort of slow breakdown. The 2nd ? Is will England prosper in the WC with Youngs & Farrell as their 1/2’s? Proved to be plenty flaky to me with their predictable, inaccurate & incessant kicking. 3rdly, why haven’t these tactics, which have worked once v quality (til this yr at least) opposition in the 6N, been changed? This last ? leads back to Jones, the 1/2’s & particularly Farrell, as on field captain, of course. 4thly, rather than concerning just the bench, why are some players retained & others omitted completely? Hughes, by general concensus here, seems to be inadequate, yet the seasoned, in form Ben Morgan is sidelined. Likewise, with Cipriani sitting it out, Farrell is snatching defeats for England. The choices necessary for expanded tactics are missing! Such as now, surely, Farrell’s inappropriate selection, including as captain. His dismissal is necessary IMV, but then who to bring in/back for this role? Hartley or Launchbury seem the only options to me, but then they must play. Also, regarding England’s bench, the reason for having 1 is to bring players on whom can change, or have a direct impact on games, rather than just be sets of fresh legs. Some aforementioned players ought to already be in the English set up, on the field or on the bench, but they’re not. So, some dilemmas for Engjand. Without the right ?’s being asked about these issues though, they won’t get the right answers. Decision time. Big time. Answers over the next 4.. or maybe not? Don’t think England do radical.

    1. I think that our England’s biggest problem in Japan is Eddie Jones
      He is making horrible mistakes in his selections
      He ignored the affects of altitude in the first
      2 tests in SA by making his base camp on the Natal coast.
      He ignored Alex Goode who is the best fullback in England..
      Unable to change tactics on the field against Wales when the kicking game proved to be ineffective
      I think he is just pig headed and has only a one Year shelf life where ever he goes.

      1. Probably true Don, but it ain’t going to happen before the World Cup. Jones will almost certainly stick with Youngs and Farrell which will ensure that even if the pack wins good ball it will not be distributed fast enough or accurately enough. Totally agree with Darth Maul about Care who got a lot of stick that should have been aimed at the players in front of him. I hope he gets another chance. My other big concern is Daly at full back. His attacking flair does not make up for his defensive frailty, and our lack of defensive organisation against Scotland was a substantial step backwards from the beginning of the season. Underhill looks as if we will be fit which will strengthen the bench. Any Exeter supporters know how far Simmonds is from playing?”

        1. Unfortunately for England, I think you’re about the 1/2’s Andy. Under pressure, which he is following the 6N, Jones seems to freeze, get stuck mentally. Also agree about his picks @ 1/2 back. Irrational. Ditto for Daly @ f/back. ED can be effective on the front foot, but on the back foot, a Mike Brown he ain’t. His being played out of posi is just another of Jones’ illogical decisions. Do YOU think that it may be Jones, not his team, who needs the psychologist?

        2. He won’t be playing any rugby this side of the World Cup. Hopefully will be good to go for the start of 19/20 season.

  3. I used to have a level of empathy/sympathy with Eddie Jones in that injuries to key personnel seemed to always crop up when he seemed to have started to settle on a best match day squad, or that I used to also point 50% of the blame at players just not delivering on the field.

    However he has failed and failed time and time again in terms of selection and sticking with players we all scratch our heads at and it has become even more ridiculous of recent.

    The scrum half situation is diabolical. Ever rugby supporter in the world can tell you Botch Kick Youngs has as many bad games as good for both club and country, yet EJ seems set with him. Care has been kicked to the wilderness off the back of a few poor games in the 2018 Six Nations (when he replaced injured BY after game one if I recall) however our pack were dire in that 6N and Care was constantly on the back foot or scrapping at rucks for clean ball. No scrum half would have shone behind a pack performing as they did. OK he got another shot at Japan but again frankly the whole team didn’t really turn up for that err ‘friendly’.

    With regards to Fly half and Farrell-Gate, let us not all get carried away and beat Farrell to a pulp with an angry fans wooden stick. Remember this is a No 10 who was nominated for World Player of the Year 2016 & 2017, played well for the Lions in NZ and I recall reading something somewhere that in terms of ‘stats alone’ he was the top fly half in the World not so long ago. I am not ignoring the fact he has shown some concerning fallibility of recent…but this happens when expectations become so high on individuals. Look at Sexton, he too has shown the level of expectations on one mans shoulders can get to you and affect your performance as witnessed in the recent 6N.

    Anyway getting back on track, regards to Farrell where EJ has failed it would seem is with squad development in terms of alternative leaders when Farrell is wilting, and clearly not having the trust in Ford to remove Farrell earlier from the pitch or at least Fly half position.

    I think DP makes a good point in that is EJ going through his own meltdown??

    1. D Maul, don’t see it as beating Farrell to pulp. He may have been nominated for WP o t Yr, but he didn’t attain it, his stats are presumably based on his being in winning teams & did he really play that well for the Lions? As I recall, he missed a number of tackles, goal kicks, touches & catches. Sexton did win WP o t Yr, but he’s suddenly not in a winning team any more, taken more pressure & hits. Therefore, as the hits & elephant kneeling on his chest have grown, he, like Farrell has become increasingly ineffective. Agree Jones seems incapable of making correct player choices & changes, so England go into the WC hamstrung then?

      1. DP just because he didn’t attain it, does not retract from the fact he was recognised as ‘one of’ the best players in the world. BB for NZ didn’t attain it last year but I he is still a world class player. In terms of The Lions he played well enough for Gatland to cap him in all Three Tests.

        1. Ouch! A bit of a raw nerve DM? If you think Farrell’s they guy to captain England, positionally & responsibility wise, into the WC, then good luck. And regards Gatland, the Lions won 1 test by 3 v 14 & Wales have mostly been dire v the SH for over a decade now. 1 GS & his picking of Farrell doesn’t nec change all that. Who knows, if he’d picked somebody else, they might have won the NZ sreies?

          1. Not a touched nerve at all DP, I was just really trying to point out in my posts that the more the expectation looms on a player it can takes its toll. I am not ignoring the fact that Farrell has been exposed and the pressure has shown, but merely that this shouldn’t cloud the fact that (IMO and I am sure by peers) he is still a world class player and with a few tweaks and the right coaching leading up to the WC I think he can rise up. Issue is EJ is not the right coach!!
            I agree take the captaincy away from him for a start that may relieve the burden. Similar to Robshaw who seemed to find a new gear once he was relieved of the captains crown.

            1. No amount of coaching will turn Farrell into an instinctive fly half like Ford and Cipriani.You can coach a player what to do in any given situation,you cannot teach him When to do it -You have to have the feel or the instinct-very much like a No8 or a SH has to have in order to break effectively.

              1. Agree JS10. Mostly, or up to a point anyway. A player has only 3 choices with ball in hand. He can only run, pass or kick. Generally, it ought to be done in this order. However, match situations will arise whereby this order needs changing. That’s where the instinctive bit you allude to, literally, comes into play. The ‘naturals’ take the ‘right’ options most of the time. The ‘manufactured’ ones can’t do this. Therefore, repeated practicing of the ball playing choices, in various game scenarios, ought to instill a degree of better, if not natural, or appropriate, responses. IOW, conditioning or brain washing if you like, should improve a player in this area of decision making.

            2. Farrell

              Here, we diverge DM. Never regarded Farrell as WC. He can kick goals, sure, but other than that he’s no more than competent. Similar to SA’s Pollard. 1st instinct is to kick too often. Where’s his innovation? Wrap arounds, bringing of the back 3 into the line? Straightening of the line, timing of, varity of pass, or mixing up of plays? Compared to Cipriani it’s not a contest. The latter is a ‘natural’, whereas Farrell is ‘manufactured’, playing by numbers. However, being methodical, solid & stolid, he fits the English mould. When have England last trusted a truly gifted fly1/2? Bev Risman? Richard Sharpe? Not the sacred cow Wilco either. He was primarily a goal kicker & tackler. Stood too deep, too slow off the mark. Effective in a winning team, formerly like Farrell, but neither were in the vein of a Barry John or Phil Bennett. It’s not just to do with pressure either. You also allude to Robshaw in this respect. CR made fundamentally wrong choices about the taking of penalties for goal & lineout when an attempted try was the ONLY option in respect of the 1st instance. As with Farrell, it isn’t & wasn’t a case of inexperience. It’s a case of reading the game. Making the right choice, at the right time, was & is still the issue. Farrell too makes the fundamentally wrong choice with his rigid & frankly, mindless kicking game. Also, in lacking the nous or will to opt for & back what should be the obvious decision of retaining possession & by not challenging Jones over this, he falls over. Maybe there are reasons why the ‘WC’ Farrell DIDN’T get a WP o t Yr gong.

              1. Oops. ‘Sharp’, not Sharpe. Also forgot OF’s (or Wilko’s, for that matter) lack of BJ’s, PB’s, BR’s or RS’s side stepping prowess. Pleased I didn’t strike a RN though DM.

                1. Why would you expect OF to give good BJ’ s Don? And did you see Alex Goode at 10 for Saracens today? As talented as Cips in my opinion but like so many good players (Cips, Goode,Daly,Lozowski, Farell) suffer from being too versatile.

              2. Okay so flip this on its head; Jonny W only effective in a winning team, OF only effective in a winning team. So does this then mean it is the TEAM around OF that is the issue? If JW was not the 1st choice No 10 would England have won the 2003 WC? It is so easy (and short sighted) to say someone only looks good because they are in a winning team. I revert back to Sexton; was he voted WP in 2018 because he was in winning teams being Leinester/Ireland? Would Sexton looks as good if he played for Ulster? Does Irelands crap from in the 6N mean Sexton is not World Class? Beauden Barrett for all his attacking talent often leaves many points on the field due to missed kicks that have led to losses for NZ. In a tight game in the WC final, with 75mins on the clock and a penalty awarded out wide I know I would rather have a Jonny Wilkinson in my side than a Danny Cipriani.

                1. DM. What expectation are you communicating about re Farrell? Kicking constantly is NOT WC. It’s fundamentally dumb rugby. How can you ‘tweak’ that? He’s either ltd or of weak character, if he’s following orders. He’s the captain FCOL! That’s what he get paid the big bucks for. Not soaking it up when it’s going swimmingly. If he’s not up to it, then he should have the guts to quit. Flip it how you like, but Farrell (& Youngs) WAS the issue. His intercepts, charge downs & for the umpteenth, his metronomic kicking, contributed to his team’s defeat v Wales & almost v Scotland. He can’t make a basic decision of what to not do. How can this be construed as WC? Beggers belief. Picking a 1 off WC final kick by JW is hardly representative either. It’s unscientific. Regds Barrett, who did get 2 WP o t Yr’s, he needs no defending by me. May miss the odd few kicks, but he kicks a few as well & as the, so far, 2nd top (to Dan Carter) AB try scoring 1st 5, maybe he contributes a few on the field as well. So his record defends him. In respect of Sexton, going by general opinion here, he’s been nothing special in the recent 6N. Most do look better in a winning team. Granted. However, if players fall away in the manner Farrell has, possibly Sexton (he may have taken a few too many knocks & not been rotated enough by Schmidt), surely it ain’t what teams need going into a WC. Is it?

  4. Back up SH. What about a decent starter in that position?
    Youngs has largely been mediocre for the last year at least.
    SH has been our weakest position for a while. No coincidence to my mind that it is the one that Jones has totally mismanaged.
    Maunder, Spencer and Robson get the odd 5 minutes, Wiggy is brought back, Care dropped, yet Youngs remains our No 1.
    It was obvious a year or two back that we had to seriously look at and give greater opportunities to players in the position. Now we have Youngs….and, er, just who? Robson has hardly played, being capped only about 18 months after he should have been.
    I suspect we’ll have 2 SH’s at the WC, one will be Youngs. After that, I’ve no idea what Jones is thinking.
    On game changers from the bench. It’s not difficult. Pick the right players and give them more than a few minutes to make a difference. This was something Jones actually did very effectively for the first couple of years. He’s become far too conservative in getting the right players on the bench to start with, and in getting them on at the right time.
    Watson should be a shoo in for the WC as long as he gets a few games under his belt before the end of the season.

  5. Regarding Watson, in terms of quality he would walk back in to many peoples first xv. The water is muddied by his lack of game time and sticking him in at FB after so little time in camp would be an even bigger risk than sticking with Daly.
    If he gets back to form the best he can hope for is a wing berth with (hopefully) a recall for Brown with him and daly battling it out for the FB spot. Retaining Daly would also give us an extra option at centre should we get injuries and that huge boot too.

  6. Can’t respond directly to yr article Andy. No ‘reply’ button. If England had BJ instead of OF playing fly1/2, they could then sidestep the issue of BJ’s altogether. Versatility brings to mind Austin Healy. No shortage of lifts home for his team mates after matches I suspect. Daly suffers for this ‘ability’, as he’s played out of position. Therefore England suffer too. I ? Farrell’s versatility, although he’s relatively ‘better’ suited to 12. Still kick (goals!) from there. However, this would mess up midfield. Did see Saracens match & Goode. A more useful WC prospect than others with his adequacey in covering f/back & fly1/2, but it won’t happen. Don’t know enough about Lozowski. Could England do with a Liam Williams? Notwithstanding that he was responsible for giving away Gkasgow’s 1st try, looking like a G. North novice in the process. Wonder if Staggy was watching that 1?


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