Another round of fixtures, another twist in the tale; the 2019 Six Nations continues to intrigue and astonish. An immense victory in Dublin was followed up by a crushing defeat of the French at Twickenham, setting England on their way to a third championship in four years. Then came the Welsh. England were left speechless by a late onslaught, as they experienced their first loss to Wales during Eddie Jones’ tenure. Were they the architects of their own downfall or is there more to the story? The autopsy has begun.
The first port of call is the atmosphere at the Principality Stadium. The arena is renowned for conjuring up a hugely hostile environment for visiting teams; this is only amplified when England come to town. The sea of Welsh voices whipped up a storm as the contest drew to a close, which undoubtedly impacted on-field matters. Alun Wyn Jones and his pack were spurred on by the crowd, upping their intensity as they trapped England in their own half. Similarly, the backs grew in confidence whilst their opponents wilted. However, this was but one of many factors at play.
In the heat of battle, some England players appeared to lose their cool. The belligerent Kyle Sinckler – whose aggression is so often an asset for Jones’ side – overstepped the mark on a handful of occasions. He alone was penalised as many times as the entire Welsh contingent, a rather damning statistic.
Sinckler’s two misdemeanours in the second period were avoidable and have since drawn heavy criticism, as they offered Wales the chance to claw back points and gain territory. Nevertheless, he was not the sole culprit, with his side tripling the number of infringements that Wales made. It is always going to be difficult to keep a foothold when ill-discipline is so rife. There is simply no chance to build momentum when this occurs.
It is small wonder that Sinckler was replaced swiftly after his transgressions, though oddly his was one of only a few substitutions made before the closing stages. Jones’s decision to leave most of his replacements on the bench seems to have contributed to England’s downfall. As the game wore on, Wales’ stranglehold on the contest continued to tighten.
The workload placed upon the shoulders of the English starters appeared to be sapping them and Gatland’s men took full advantage. If we factor in England’s tackle count – which nearly doubled that of the opposition – then it seems even more likely that this substitution policy was a crucial misstep by Jones.
A counter-argument to the previous point is the success of the same tactic against Ireland. At the Aviva Stadium, Jones was equally sparing when it came to ringing the changes. I needn’t remind you how that turned out for him. Additionally, England’s conditioning has been superb during Jones’ reign, with the previous rounds of this tournament highlighting such. A boisterous crowd packed inside a Cardiff cauldron may, then, be the explanation for the events at the end of the game.
The baying Welsh crowd certainly played their part; this cannot be denied. In Dublin, England’s immaculate performance had largely pacified the home support. The same cannot be said of Saturday’s match. This, in tandem with England’s flagging energy levels, at least partially explains how the Welsh strangled the game from England in the final quarter. There was not the same deafening noise to drive the Irish on.
Jones and his coaches may not be at fault with regards to substitutions, but their on-field tactics were certainly suspect. Once more, they went with a game-plan that centred on kicking accuracy. When this failed to produce the same results it had against France and Ireland, Jones refused to twist. The tactic yielded only a third of possession for England and even less territory. This gives no basis from which to build a score; the result may well have been different had the focus switched to retaining possession and utilising ball-carriers.
The game-plan alone cannot be blamed for this defeat. For it to generate the same results that it did on the opening-weekend, the halfbacks must be firing on all cylinders. The approach works superbly when the side’s kickers are at their best; look at the previous two games for evidence of this. Unfortunately, both Owen Farrell and Ben Youngs failed to reach the requisite levels, with the whole side suffering as a consequence.
It is unsurprising that Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade, and Jonny May were anonymous for large periods of the game when those inside them were misfiring. The statistics show how peripheral this centre pairing was; Hadleigh Parkes had as many carries as the duo combined. Considering Tuilagi’s carrying abilities are famed and feared in equal measure, it truly is remarkable to see him starved of opportunities with ball in-hand.
Very rarely did England pose a genuine threat to the Welsh defence, due largely to the fact that the backline were afforded little opportunity to challenge their opponents in open spaces. This was a result of the two issues we have just discussed; Farrell and Youngs’ failure to release them, and their poor execution of the team’s game-plan. Therefore, much of the blame for this defeat can be laid at their door. Of course, Jones should have seen the picture that was unfolding and made a change. That no alteration came makes him equally as culpable.
It is worth noting that England were without some of their top performers after injuries to Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola. For them to then lose the influential Courtney Lawes and his unique skillset compounded this issue. Vunipola had arguably been the outstanding player for any side in the tournament, so his loss was a particularly damaging one. Though his replacement Ben Moon performed admirably, he does not possess the same carrying capabilities. Had he been available, England may well have offered more in attack.
Evidently, there were a number of factors that influenced Saturday’s result. Some were more minor than others, with the sub-par Youngs-Farrell axis certainly having a strong bearing on the outcome. As they lost control of matters, the Welsh rose to the occasion and put them to the sword. Of course, none of these issues is entirely isolated from any of the others; for example, the deafening crowd seemed to impact Farrell’s performance, whilst Jones should have revised his tactics in the light of this.
The team will learn from this encounter as they prepare for their match with Italy and everything to follow.
By Ed Alexander