What next for England?

Joe Launchbury

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

22 thoughts on “What next for England?

  1. I see one of the most pressing issues as being the lack of a top class ball winning 7. Simmonds looks to me like a seven rather than an eight, but is short of experience. Armand is in prime form at present, and Kvesic looks rejuvenated by his move. Would like to have seen one of them given a chance. Underhill has tremendous potential but is destructive rather than a ball winner. We also need someone to put their hand up as an alternative to Dan Cole if he gets hurt. Will EJ settle for Williams or Sinkler (pressuring Collier is injured)? Centre combination needs to be settled at the beginning of the six nations and given time to gel, and Care should get a regular start in front of Youngstown.He is a quicker and more accurate passer and has improved vastly in the past two years.

    1. Agreed on Underhill up to a point – he’s come across lately as a big tackler but hasn’t really carried or jackled all that much for Bath or England.

      I can only really speak from highlight reels but he seemed to be over the ball a bit more for the Ospreys. We need to get more of that out of him, particularly if Robshaw is at 6.

      Can’t really see him as a Michael Hooper speed carrier in attack so again, if Robshaw’s at 6, the carrying will have to be mostly done by the 8.

      1. Underhill does have 5 turnovers in 2 Champions Cup games for Bath so…

        Think he’s as good of a fetcher as we’ve seen in England for many years. He needs to be a better link player in attack for England but his tackling and breakdown work is exceptional.

    2. I disagree entirely the days of the out and out 7 have been killed off by the new ruck laws. trying to find an out and out 7 now would leave us failing to move with the times.

  2. I think England have about 25 players that are more or less nailed on for the WC

    Based on who EJ has picked under his tenure, those guys are:

    Mako, Marler
    Hartley, George
    Cole, Sink, Williams
    Itoje, Lawes, Launch, Kruis
    Robshaw, Hughes, Billy
    Youngs, Care
    Farrell, Joseph, Te’o
    Daly, Watson, Nowell, May, Brown.

    Depending on how they want the WC squad to look, this potentially leaves space for a loosehead, a hooker, maybe 3 back rows, a scrum half, a fly half and a centre.

    Given that Itoje and Lawes have been tried in the back row, and that Farrell, Daly, Watson etc cover multiple back line positions, I’d say the emphasis is on finding the players to fill the other positions.

    Furthermore, I think England need to test, in a real game, what would happen if they were to be without certain players. For example. Hartley, Cole, Youngs, Care, Ford have probably featured in nearly every 23 when available. If one of them was to be injured in a warm up game, and miss the whole tournament, their replacements would have very little experience. This is particularly important in the front row and at 9, as those positions are generally substituted in every game. You might do the 80 in a one off game, but I doubt you’d go through the group stage without needing to be rested at some point.

    1. Agree with most of that. I’d imagine Genge is pretty nailed on too, as is Underhill. You need 4 flankers (assuming we only take 4 locks) so Haskell and Curry would probably be in if the WC was tomorrow however I agree that it is there for the taking still for those two spots.

      In the backline, I think 5 back three players is enough and I also doubt he’ll take 3 scrum half’s so there is space for more utility backs such as Lozowski and Slade.

  3. Good post Jonny, I agree with the majority of this although I have a nagging suspicion that Jones is not convinced by Joseph.

    Yes, I know he has been in the squad, and indeed the team, pretty consistently but I wonder whether this has been more a case of a suitable alternative.

    It wouldn’t surprise me to see Te’o starting at 13 in the 6 Nations, and even Tuilagi creeping back into the frame (he is a “possible” for the Leicester squad this weekend apparently).

    1. I think Tuilagi has a huge amount to do to persuade anyone that he is close to being the player he was four years ago. He was never the quickest, and a horrible succession of injuries must mean he has not developed at all. If he gets back quickly I would take that as a sign that we are short of good centres. Totally agree with Jonny’ s post, but not sure who the third scrum half should be. Not convinced by Robson. Wrigglesworth is still as good as any, but a very different style to the other two. Cowan-Dickie must be favourite for 3rd hooker.

  4. Breakdown should be fixable with getting the right mix in the pack. Its not just about who plays 7, you’ve got to get all the forwards able to clear rucks effectively but only having one effective back rower around the breakdown is really not an option.
    Mauls havent been up to much for a while now. Its an area of the game that does need improvement.
    There will be some limited scope for experimentation over the 6N’s and the trip to SA, but i’d say most of the WC squad are in place now. Eddie will want to try out a few different combinations – I’m sure he will want give Te’o an opportunity and bring in a 3rd SH for example – but I reckon most of the personnel have been identified.

  5. Overall I feel England have a pretty good and wide selection options at their disposal, and with injuries & concussions on the rise even if you know your best test squad there is a huge chance they won’t all stay fit at the same time.

    I’d deffo like to see Simmonds given a run at 7 in the Six Nations, get him some more international experience. That said I’d also be happy with Underhill. I certainly don’t want to keep seeing locks at flanker!!

    Midfield is still an area I am not convinced we are complete just yet and I’d like to see this combo given a run…Farrell at 10, Teo 12 (fully fit) Slade 13.

    1. Rugger80
      I totally agree.
      JJ has had a free run so far with little competition for his place (more of a monopoly on it) so any threat for the 13 shirt from Slade is good for the team.
      Teo/Slade is the perfect balance of power and guile whereas Farrell/JJ had none of the former.
      Tuilagi is another matter but would be good to see him threaten for a place too (purely from a rugby perspective)

    1. Don’t think either of the Currys will be anywhere near ready for the next WC. Not big enough, strong enough or experienced enough. Would have Mercer, Armand, Kvesic and several others in front of both of them.

      1. I think the big/strong enough statement is debatable. Though both are still young they seem pretty stocky and there are other backrow forwards around the world who perform at the required level and are a similar size. The experience argument is definitely valid; unfortunately time is running out for them to gain enough experience prior to the WC. Although injury/unforeseen circumstances could change that.

  6. I wonder (and I realise this will sound abstract) whether England lack some “X factor”? Its a given that the team composition on the whole is excellent looking at the results and many of the performances. Just wondering whether if we were to decide a world XV based on this AI season, how many English players would be picked?

    A different thought I’ve been having for a while is whether it would help to give some players sabbatical years (a la McCaw/Carter/Pocock etc). Some of these guys (especially the senior lot) have been on the scene for a number of years now, and at the very least must need a long physical break? Plus considering how well McCaw/Carter played post sab., and also the recent Guardian story into the Richmond part timers, maybe giving these guys a mental break might help them enjoy the rugby more when they do come back, and benefit the squad in the long run by allowing deputies to develop and have real competition for places. Obviously this isnt a magic bullet to solve every problem but for the right players (am thinking billy V, Faz, maybe Robshaw, maybe Brown especially with his concussion problems but that’s a whole different rant) it might elevate their performances on return?

    1. Problem with the sabbatical idea is that the players in question are not centrally contracted so the RFU have no sway to make this happen and the clubs have no incentive to sideline one or more of their star players that they have built their squad around

      1. This is a little blue sky thinking but perhaps as opposed the sabbatical, they loan them out to Japanese teams. The club and players could get some money back, the players would play aren’t put through quite the same grind and gain a little more experience in a different set up.

        Or the RFU dips into their substantial pockets and pays the clubs a bit more to restrict the number of games key players are involved in?

  7. It will be a very interesting 18 months for all of the top tier teams….let’s have a look….

    Ireland have a solid starting XV and on their day with, everyone fit, my view is they are (currently) the best NH side. Their best starting pack is excellent. However if they are hit with injuries I am not convinced with their replacement options & they need to quickly improve this.

    Wales/South Africa I am putting in the same boat, both in a period of changing and I don’t feel they have enough time to get things right in 18 months.

    England – a strong foundation here and have plenty of player options, even if some need to gain some more experience – which is more than possible (even if it may mean not winning a Six Nations title but to blood in some youth). Still need some work on developing their best starting XV & I think they need to be able to have better game plans in place. Sometimes it does look like they just play what is in front of them. Few more leaders developed aswell.

    New Zealand – clearly chinks have been exposed in 2017, however no doubt they will suddenly unleash players who are World Class from nowhere. They of course will be favourites

    Scotland – as much as I admire their improvements, for the past 3 years I have heard how they will be challenging for Six Nations titles and each year they flunk. So history tells me they will entertain but won’t be realistic challenge for the WC. Sorry lads..

    France – hahaha. Forget it

    Australia – its a shame for Australian rugby but I just feel they have not been the force they used to be, probably since the 2013 Lions tour. I really don’t know what is going wrong, I don’t watch enough of the Super Rugby to comment on their nucleus of talent. Are many of their up and coming players opting to go abroad for money thus damaging the consistent faces present in the International Squad? A bit like Wales and SA they have a lot to improve upon in 18 months….

    So my VERY early Semi final predictions based on the groups and routes will be Ireland v Australia and Eng V New Zealand

    1. Touch harsh on Scotland perhaps. They seem to have shifted that failing to close out games monkey off their back that they had a couple of years ago and have shown genuine progression unearthing some great talents in Huw Jones and moved away from Laidlaws glacial passing.
      Still not sure they are quite as good as the pundits and media make them out to be but i expect them to come in 3rd in the 6N. They have a new coach which might iron out some remaining demons. Too early to judge but if they have a good 6N then they could give Ireland a run for their money

  8. For me the main areas of concern are : Tight head and the back row balance. Harry Williams must be given significant game time in the 6n. There is no guarantee that Sinckler will have sorted his head out by the new year or even by the time of the world cup.and we can’t risk going into that with a prop who may cause as much damage to his team as he does to the opposition.
    With the players available we should not be shoehorning locks into the number 6 berth ,it’s plain daft. Billy, Hughes and CR so we need two decent opensides and two blindsides as cover. Surely there are enough contenders out there?
    Simmonds has to be given more games and it would’nt hurt to give Kvesic a reprieve although i’m not sure anyone really knows why he needs one. Mark Wilson is big and abrasive. Hask could
    still be in the mix come 2019 and Jack Clifford will be fit and firing hopefully. I agree with others that the Currie bros and Mercer will be a little too callow for ’19. Other than that i think what we see now is ,by and large, what we will get come Japan.

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