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