As 2017 draws to a close, England can reflect on another unbeaten autumn series of internationals, a second successive Six Nations title, and two wins in the summer over Argentina while over half the first-choice players were away with the Lions.
In fact, the only blemish was a tough loss in Dublin that denied a Grand Slam and record for consecutive test match wins.
At the halfway point on the road to the 2019 World Cup, everything looks pretty good. Yet Eddie Jones is not the kind of guy to get complacent – the defeat by Ireland will have hurt, while the less-than-convincing nature of some victories shows there is still room for improvement. The elephant in the room is of course that there has been no match against New Zealand (that will arrive in due course next autumn) and we would be foolish to think we are yet consistently at the same standard as the game’s flag-bearers.
Up next is the 2018 Six Nations – so what do England need to work on to earn that record third successive title? And what else do they need to do before their opening match in Japan against Tonga on 22 September 2019, to mean they are ready to compete for the Rugby World Cup?
Sort out the breakdown
Two matches stick out on this point – Ireland in Dublin earlier this year and the most recent game against Samoa. Against Ireland, Peter O’Mahony booked his Lions place with a match-winning 80 minutes of niggle and graft to frustrate and disrupt any fluidity in England’s attacking play. Then, in the final game of the Autumn Series, while England eventually ran out comfortable winners, they were given a torrid time at the breakdown by the likes of TJ Ioane and Jack Lam.
England have been hampered by injuries here – Chris Robshaw was missing against Ireland, while openside Sam Underhill was also stood down against Samoa due to head injuries; fellow seven Tom Curry was also ruled out of the Autumn series (and likely the Six Nations too).
In both these cases, England ended up fielding an extra second row (Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes at different stages) on the flanks, and while brilliant players, the pack’s breakdown work suffered because of it.
England have shown they can play two ‘six-and-a-halves’ – Robshaw and James Haskell – and still match teams at the breakdown. But they struggle when shoe-horning a lock onto the flank. It is not always enough to cost them a game (as Samoa proved), and has other advantages – better lineout, another strong carrier, better maul defence, and so on – but the contact area suffers.
Joe Launchbury makes a huge difference here. He is excellent at clearing the contact area to give quick attacking ball; England’s work there notably deteriorated when he was forced to leave the field against Samoa. However, he was there for the Ireland game and England still came second best.
It is worth noting that Australia and Argentina were both exposed to the new breakdown laws for the first time this autumn, while Samoa had a number of northern-based players already familiar with the changes. Is it a coincidence the Samoans gave England the toughest contest at the contact area? The Six Nations will pit England against O’Mahony et al again, while Wales with Justin Tipuric and Sam Warbuton (if fit) and Scotland with Hamish Watson will represent serious tests of England’s breakdown credentials.
England can get away with fielding a lock on the flanks against weaker opposition, but against the very best it could end up costing them – certainly if there is no proper openside to pick up some of the slack. Underhill and Curry look the real deal and should be there come the World Cup, but it worries me to already be reliant on such inexperienced players. Who is third in line? Haskell could still come back into the equation, but others like Tom Wood and Teimana Harrision have been found wanting.
A collective improvement at the breakdown is very much necessary – but come 2019, I hope England do not have to field Lawes or Itoje on the flank from the start in knock out rugby.
Work on the mauls
This issue harks way back to that loss against Australia in autumn 2012. If you can recall, Chris Robshaw came under fire for his decision-making as, when six points down, he turned down numerous penalty kicks at goal to go for the corner and try and score a try. I remember the commentator at the time questioning the decisions because England’s conversion rate at scoring from driving mauls was abysmal. Sure enough, they failed from three attempts and lost by those six points.
I raise this, because I am not sure the rolling maul has got much better.
Against Samoa the other weekend, they admittedly scored twice following a driving maul – but between those bookends, there were numerous disrupted and poor mauls, a couple of which resulted in the ball being turned over.
Samoa’s strength is in their running game and ability to counter attack – their set piece and structured play is not on the same level. Yet England managed to make a hash of multiple mauls; Samoa’s players got in the middle and (legally, I might add) broke it up, preventing it building any momentum and stopping quick recycled ball for the backs to exploit. The likes of Ireland and Wales in the Six Nations, if history is anything to go by, will be much sterner examinations of England’s maul technique.
The rolling maul from the lineout, when properly utilised, can be a formidable attacking weapon and is one of the best tactics to try and score a try in a close match. Right now, I would not be confident that should England need a last-minute try for victory against quality opposition, kicking to the corner would have any different result to that Australia match five years ago.
Time for experimentation is running out
Eddie Jones took the opportunity in the autumn series to rest a few of his Lions contingent – while injury also contributed – and trial some alternate options to build strength in depth.
The results were generally positive, although not perfect. What did he learn? Well Henry Slade looks much better at 13 than 12, but for all his talent, hasn’t quite proved unequivocally that he must be in this England team. England can play without Mike Brown at the back – and have lots of exciting running talent – but look more composed with Mr Angry holding the line. Lots of good wingers, although I’ll be damned if I know which should be the starting combination. Basically, England have lots of strength in depth, but precious few knocking the door down and demanding a starting shirt over the incumbents.
I will say the notable exception was Sam Simmonds – I though he was magnificent against Samoa, his engine is astonishing, he did the hard work in heavy traffic, and has real pace to operate in space out wide. A very exciting talent and when the game starts to open up he could be a real asset – likely off the bench.
But beyond that competition for the 20-shirt – and Sam Underhill on the openside – it seems likely that England’s first choice team will not be too dissimilar to that of a year ago. While in its own right, that is no bad thing, and the players will benefit from extra experience, there is still the nagging feeling that England need one final piece to make them the real deal.
Alongside that, Jones missed the opportunity to trial some size and power in his backline on a more consistent basis; Ben Te’o was out injured, while Manu Tuilagi seems destined to be a case of ‘what might have been’.
The problem is there are approximately 16 games left before summer 2019. Those caps are precious and the experience invaluable. Jones is running out of time if he wants to uncover a hidden gem and blood them for the World Cup.
The Six Nations is looking like being the most competitive yet (although don’t we say that every year?). Bar Italy, there will be next to no opportunity for England to experiment. South Africa may not be the force of old, but England haven’t won away there in donkey’s years – while next autumn’s headline clash with the All Blacks is a must win if ever there was one.
Chances for new players will be rare over the next year – has Jones the squad (and combinations) already capable of winning the World Cup?
What do you think are the most pressing issues for England?
By Henry Ker