We came into the 2018 Six Nations buoyed by the tantalising prospect of a winner-takes-all grand slam decider between England and Ireland on the final weekend. The second-best team in the world versus the third-best. And it would be St Patrick’s day to boot. What a match it would be.
Well, what do they say about ‘best laid plans’ and all that… Ireland held up their end of the bargain and deservedly walked away with five wins and the silverware that only comes once in a generation, but by that point, England had long been out of the running, undone by Scotland and France before even setting eye on an emerald-green shirt.
England may have won two back-to-back tournaments and a record-equalling string of victories in the past couple of years, but this was proof, if ever, that the game does not stand still.
The breakdown. Discipline. Lack of ball carriers. These issues have marred English teams on a regular basis ever since that 2003 generation started to hang up their boots. And they reared their ugly heads once again in this tournament.
In particular, England were completely outplayed at the breakdown by the Scottish and French: the duo of Hamish Watson and John Barclay were a consistent nuisance, while the sight of Mathieu Bastareaud clamped onto the ball while England’s smallest player, George Ford, tried to shift him was just painful.
In those two matches, England conceded an eye-watering 13 and 15 penalties respectively, with a further 11 against the Irish (although the Irish actually out-did them with 12 on that one). Even in a winning effort against Wales they shipped 10 to the Welsh two. Add in the nine against Italy, and that’s an astonishing 58 across the tournament.
Discipline certainly needs to improve. But penalties conceded are often only a symptom of other issues – one was a failure to understand and adapt to the referee’s interpretation of various areas of the game. This is a similar problem to that which several of the Premiership sides experienced in the Champions Cup (I wrote about it in December here and it still feels pretty relevant) and definitely needs looking at.
But also feeding into this were other factors – namely those breakdown issues. England fielded a lock at six, and a six at seven – one who then packed down at eight for much of the match.
When Eddie Jones first came in, one of the best things he did was recognise the players he had at his disposal, pick them in their best positions and build the gameplan around them, rather than trying to shoehorn good players into a strategy which did not suit their natural game. Not any more, it seems.
There are mitigating factors. England were affected by injuries, with Tom Curry dislocating his wrist before the tournament and Sam Underhill a late returnee to the squad, before being ruled out of the rest of the season with a toe injury. So to some extent I can see the Courtney Lawes/Chris Robshaw combo was forced upon them initially.
However, I do not understand why other breakdown specialists were not called up, or why, when it went so badly against Scotland, changes were not made for France.
Casting our minds back to last May, and Ben Curry was initially named in the squad to face the Barbarians in a non-cap match. Alas injury struck and his brother Tom became a last-minute replacement. Now when Tom was ruled out, surely Ben would have been the obvious replacement?
Still only 19 years old, Ben won a league-high 14 turnovers from just 12 appearances for his club Sale last season (the second highest since stats-provider Opta started recording) – including a whopping six in one game – and a further 10 this season. He was excellent at the weekend as Sale thumped Worcester (which incidentally, also saw the return of his brother from injury). Although Ben travelled to South America last summer, he did not win a cap and has not even been involved in a senior training camp since. It is a curious case.
The way the breakdown is being refereed seems to have affected things, at least in the Premiership. Alongside the stricter enforcement of players going off their feet at the breakdown, the ruck rules have been changed which mean the defensive team does not have to commit bodies. This combination means the defensive line often just fans out rather than competing for the ball, soaking up phase after phase of attack (there are 20% more collisions apparently). This would seem to reduce the role of a breakdown terrier somewhat.
However, what some teams have realised, is there is still a role for a scavenger – they just have to pick their moments. John Barclay and Hamish Watson did this excellently against England. Rather than diving into every ruck and getting pinged off the park, they let England go through multiple attacks, trusting in their defensive line, and letting the high number of phases begin to pull England out of shape. This resulted in isolated ball carriers and a chance for one of them to pounce.
There has been a noticeable difference between the refereeing in the Premiership and international/Champions Cup in this area – and perhaps this is also affecting selection. What it could mean, interestingly, is a certain kind of player – a breakdown specialist who struggles with a high rate of conceding penalties at Premiership level (Ben Curry for example) – will be more effective at the top level than they are for their club. It seems odd to be advocating a player who concedes a high penalty count as the answer for England, given their discipline woes, but there you go. There are penalties, and there are penalties. Looking at the game, I think Ben Curry would be more effective – and less penalised – for England than for Sale.
Eddie Jones had a ready-made replacement for Tom Curry and Sam Underhill when injury struck, one who is ruining opposition breakdowns on a regular basis for his club and would have had a real impact for his country – why he was not called into the squad is one bafflement which continues to irk. Jones is now running out of time to blood new talent: Tom Curry may now be back but Ben is the man in form and deserves a chance. Both should go to South Africa with England.
Who do you think should be brought into the England squad?
By Henry Ker