England’s Jekyll and Hyde performances thrill and frustrate

Tom Curry

It was a baking day at the England HQ this Saturday and England delivered a suitably red-hot performance to match. Despite Ireland taking an early and brief lead, it ended 57-15 – a record victory for England over Ireland – featuring eight tries from the hosts, who refused to take their foot of the gas until the final whistle.

It is difficult to make out exactly what this victory means in the grand scheme of things. These are warm up friendlies and Ireland had only had a run out against Italy in preparation. Joe Schmidt described them as ‘heavy-legged’ in the post-match press conference, but rustier than the tin man in a monsoon might be a fairer description. They fell off an astounding 38 tackles over the course of the game, posting just a 67% success rating.

If Ireland were poor, England were imperious. Once again, their power game came to the fore. Manu Tuilagi was moved to his more natural home at 13, Joe Cokanasiga was devastating on the wing, while the likes of Maro Itoje and Jamie George carried tirelessly up front. Their set piece was solid as a rock and also frequently stole Ireland lineout ball. England’s back five beat 25 defenders between them.

Manu burst onto the scene eight years ago in the 2011 World Cup warm up game against Ireland. As he deservedly picked up his man-of-the-match award, it is to wonder how England’s fortunes might have differed had he been fit regularly over that period. It is also to be thankful he seems to be firing just in time for this World Cup, and to be excited at just how good he can be when Jones described him as operating at ‘only 80%’ of his potential.

Two sets of twins also excelled. The fly-half pivots of George Ford and Owen Farrell exploited the space brilliantly and offered variety in attack. Henry Slade, so impressive during the Six Nations, now faces a tough fight to reclaim his place. While, in the back row, the ‘Kamikaze twins’ of Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were a constant nuisance and showed plenty of pace – Underhill in particular tore after kicks like a terrier and nullified the Irish counter – linking well for a try.

Although it was great to watch, it is also a higher-risk selection and gameplan than in the past. Elliot Daly may be sharp in attack but is still a bit suspect defensively compared to the rock-steady Mike Brown. Those concerns – he was easily rounded by Bundee Aki for Ireland’s consolation try – refuse to go away, despite the life he sparks into England’s counter attack. That said, it is worth remembering just how loudly we were calling for this kind of exciting attacking runner at the back when we had the safer but arguably limited Brown in the side. And the last time Anthony Watson started at 15 for England, they were beaten 24-15 at home by Ireland in the 2018 Six Nations. But then the grass is always greener.

Similarly, Cokanasiga on wing is electrifying going forward – his second try, burning four Irish defenders on his way to the line was world class – but defensively raw; Manu looks more potent at 13 with the extra yard of space, but also then has more spacer to cover in defence.

For the thrills of Underhill and Curry, will we miss the hard-fought experience of the likes of Chris Robshaw and (soon to be MMA fighter. Seriously) James Haskell in Japan when things get tight and cagey? It will be interesting to see this line up against a less insipid team than the Irish that turned up on Saturday.

The reason for this buzzkill attitude is England have recently shown their ability to flip between brilliant one minute and lacklustre the next on a number of occasions. They were fantastic against Wales in the opening warm up game, a ‘B’ team taking the grand slam champions apart at Twickenham, before a ponderous performance in Cardiff, surrendering with nary a shot fired.

In the Six Nations, England were stunning against Ireland in Dublin and France at home. They were then well beaten in Cardiff by Wales. The Scotland game had both sides in respective halves, a game as bizarre and frustrating as it was thrilling for the neutral.

England are in in danger of becoming a Jekyll and Hyde team, capable of delighting and horrifying in equal measure. A bit like England’s cricket team, when the players fire on all cylinders, it is a joy to watch. When they are a little bit off, for whatever reason, it can be a spectacular implosion.

Twickenham is also an increasingly influential factor in this disparity. England may have only lost two of their 24 tests at the fortress under Eddie Jones, but have lost six of their last nine away games. This needs to change if they are to win a World Cup.

To do that, they need to win a minimum of six out of seven games. The only scope for a slip up is in the group stages; reach the knockout stages and three wins in a row against top teams are needed. All of this on neutral ground.

England are clearly aware of this, Billy Vunipola acknowledging, ‘I would like to see that performance away from home … going to Japan and doing it away from all our fans and the comforts of our home changing room.’

And despite their strong win against Ireland, in the press conference, encouragingly neither Jones and Farrell were getting carried away, Farrell describing it understatedly as ‘a step in the right direction’.

It certainly was a step in the right direction. A huge stride in the right direction. What England now need to do is kick the habit of shuffling backwards straight afterwards. If they can add the consistency to their flashes of brilliance, they will be a real force in Japan.

By Henry Ker

42 thoughts on “England’s Jekyll and Hyde performances thrill and frustrate

  1. Nice article and well put Henry.
    I think in the IMMEDIATE build up to a world cup a few “in and out” performances are to be expected as new tactics and partnerships are tried and evaluated. the Elephant in the room is the sheer number of see saw displays from us over the last 16 months. that suggests it’s becoming part of the mental fabric of the coaching staff and players too.
    the comment from BV is interesting as it implies that the players have noticed this and are trying to address it. The $64,000 question is why does it exist in the first place? All teams and invdidual players are entitled to off days and i’m sure Ed would argue that the whole of the last four years has essentially been an experimentation process leading up to this coming september but does that hold enough water to explain why we have so often been brilliant one week and bang average the next? Not for me.

    1. Apologies, you are right – it was their second. I completely forgot about the Italy game (my bad), have corrected the article.

  2. Good article. I agree that this selection was more risky than it might have been but for me, perhaps Daly apart, it is the starting 15 for the RWC. Really like the backrow and the carrying ability across the team is excellent.

  3. Spot On Article.EJ has been given all the ingredients he wants-I just hope when it comes to cooking he is Michel Roux as opposed to some of my girlfriends!!
    In some ways we are entering the unknown,There are2 factors which EJ cant control One is Injuries and the other is Luck,though sometimes both can work in your favour.In 2003 Alex King got injured on the last game of the season-That allowed SCW to pick Catty-QED.
    I doubt whether the selection against Italy will tell us a great deal ,we will have to wait for the France and Argentina games.
    One important factor is that the climate in Japan lends itself to fast running rugby,and not to the weather sometimes experienced in the 6N-Many years ago teams used to dread going to Paris in March because of how France could play when the sun shone!

    1. Whilst this was a “warm-up” game there’s no escaping the fact that Ireland put out the strongest side they had available and got absolutely trounced. They clearly peaked 12-18 months ago and Schmidt doesn’t really have many other options left at this point.

      England? Very good but any side who can let slip a 31pt lead against Scotland not to mention a winning position against Wales and two healthy leads against SA clearly has a lack of leadership.

      England look great sailing ahead in a flat calm but lack the nous to steer the ship home when conditions get stormy.

      For me – neither will win the RWC.

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  4. Blah, blah, blah disagree because I can, use lots of words to come across as intelligent but really needing attention and belittle those who dare to question me!

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  5. Almost got it in 1 Greyscull man in disguise. You seem annoyed? Irrational, personal as ever, you belittle yrself. And sorry, but, heh, heh, congrats! You’ve just been entered into the Guinness Bk of Recrods for the most blogs on a rugby site WITHOUT actually mentioning the magic word! Impressive. Surprised Eddie hasn’t signed you up as PR!? And BTW, I don’t think I’m esp intelligent actually. Don’t like my style, content, don’t read it. Simple. Remember, you kicked this off new fella & also, sealed lips (or typo fingers) gather no feet. Have a nice Viagra day.

      1. Ditto Nunbscull. You’re still easy to spot. Syntax again. BTW You’re not really Akex D are you? Mmm? @ least he occasionally mentioned ‘rugby’ though.

  6. With holiday I’ve just got around to watching this. Great result against Ireland 1st XV, albeit missing James Ryan.

    Ongoing worries about Daly defensively – looked great kicking and attacking though. I haven’t seen Youngs play a decent game for England in 25 tests (bar maybe against SA when he dummied du toit twice)… So hopefully EJ is seeing something. Heinz highly promising off the bench though, getting the ball away quickly and crisply.

    Back row looked very good and really balanced. With Lawes and Wilson on the bench we also have good options there, shame for Launchbury though.

    Midfield also looks better with Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12. Shame this doesn’t seem to leave room for Slade as I personally love watching him play.

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  7. What do England take out of the Ireland game in the gr& scheme? Short term, enough pts to go to No. 3. Why are they so Jekyll & Hyde? Well, if things go well up front, esp @ home, they chuck it around more, but still fundamentally run it up the guts, sucking in the oppo. Fair enough. However, it’s when England are held in the tight & particularly @ breakdown, that they can kick injudiciously & too much. Basically, giving the ball away, when they ought to retain it. Without this ball they can be hurt. They can then also up the tempo & run it up the guts even more with BV, Tui etc. In this they can become predictable. More so away. IMO, this is where England need guile players to retain possession & add variety to their play. They could also better create space out wide by drilling ball passers to step in just before delivery. Corrects drift & commits (more) opponents. This is why Cipriani should have @ least been included & Daly given a midfield spot to also make room for say, Watson @ 15. All ball players! To facilitate these playmakers, they require a quick, accurate delivery & decision maker @ 1/2. Is Youngs really the answer? England play the basics ok, but have this comfort zone style, which requires domination up front. Once this is compromised, they seem to lack deep down belief to really trust true playmakers. This, for me, detracts from, rather than enhances their game. The pressure exerted by opposition whom hold England, particularly away, tells & frustrates. Errors in play & particularly in decision making creep in & can lead to the ‘Mr. Hyde’ tendancy in their game. As the WC is away, England need to be aware of their mind set type, pick their team judiciously & play accordingly. A need to be flixilbec & adaptable, during games & including with personnel changes, could lead more to ‘Mr. Jekyll’ type outcomes. They (mostly) still have the players, but do they, or rather Jones, have the nous & will to expand their game plan?

    Hope I got J & H right. Also this is me, not the fantasy, comic character Castle Grey wot’s it. Honest Injun! Besides, I’ve utilised marginally more than 1 sentence.

    1. I hope you all appreciate I cancelled my morning wank to write the above essay, apologies for the appauling grammar and use of the English language, the self importance goes to my head…….

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      1. dead give away that wasn’t don otherwise it would have said
        I hope u all appreci& I cancelled my morning wank 2 write ^ essay apologies 4 grammar & use of English ? is does self importance go 2 my head. Sorry forgot to mention Rugby

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          1. Well said Hutch one wind up merchant not giving up on another.

            I know I will get shot down in flames here and I am critical of England when they are plain awful, such as the kick/chase debacle in the 6 Nations against Wales but I really felt that the Wales v England game was a real defensive work through for both teams a deliberate tactic by both sides, yes I think the teams want to win every game but defence works as well as attack to win games.

            Henry has wrote a great article and the worrying stat is the amount of games England haven’t won away from home but a World Cup is different with crowds being a bit more neutral.

            I really enjoyed the Ireland game first hand, seats in the shade on the lower level in the corner but it would’ve been good to see Ireland turn up, still 10 tries in the sunshine, lovely day out.

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          2. Ok Hutch. I reply to articles & some subsequent responses, but don’t usurp others’ names or initiate sexual innuendo in doing so. Do you not think that you’ve got a new loose canon here? Is it in TRB’s & perhaps as importantly, yr sponsors’ interests, for you to allow this non rugby related, continuing presence? Can look after myself, but this issue may require a bit more than ‘Leave it out lads’. Enhancing to yr site, or detracting from it? What do you reckon? The real Don P.

  8. Don P, I come in peace but maybe, just maybe if you leave it alone whoever is taking the mickey will just go away, stop chasing a response and rising to the bait.

    I come here to read about rugby and comment on rugby not read about a playground squabble

    Just ignore them and they’ll lose interest…….

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  9. Just to shoot you ‘down in flames’ a little bit @ yr invite then Mr. B, but not wishing to unduly detract from yr ‘lovely day out’, I do occasionally comment on rugby related issues. Challenging though they may be for you sometimes. Can I also take it that you’re NOT being a ‘wind up merchant’ when YOU criticise England? Just for a bit of clarity you understand? Regds.

  10. Clearly England’s away game win rate is poor – which suggests some mental weakness as a team.
    Would be interested though in seeing all top tier away win %s for the past year or two.
    Anyone got the time or is bored enough to look it up / work it out?
    After all, everyone is away at the World Cup…

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      1. While no one (bar the Japanesse) are at home for the RWC I would say everyone is away. The grounds are largely neutral rather than playing away in front of a hostile home crowd

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  11. So is anyone worried about the Mako situation? I am really concerned about cover in his position as he seems very injury prone at the moment, should we leave him be and call up Ben Moon?

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    1. Not really we have 3 loseheads in the squad and Marler and Genge are both great options. The injury update is that is was minor damage to scar tissue and has set him back around 10 days so should be fit and firing in 3 weeks time. Even if he takes until October to be fit he would be a great option to have in the final 2 pool games and the knockouts so dropping him from the squad (which would have to be permanent) would be highly premature

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      1. But one of those loose heads (Marler) has been earmarked to cover at 3. If Mako goes down in the group games and Cole or Sinckler get crocked we are then down to the bare bones prop wise.
        Six is the magic number!

        1. If a player gets crocked they will be replaced in the squad then not before
          Very few nations will take 6 props as it is overkill and leaves you undermanned elsewhere. Of the 8 teams that have announced their squads only Italy are taking 6 props

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          1. Point taken Leon but given that Ed opted for one number eight and about 16 backs, I think the fault lies in the original make up of the squad! Only 5 props may be de riguer but that doesn’t make it wise. I stand by what i said.

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  12. I agree with Acee, not so worried about a 6th prop but the original make up leaves us short a back row imo. Understand replacements can be flown in but it still may leave us short and out of position at a critical juncture.

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      1. I wouldn´t mind so much if I felt we had two quality scrum halves Leon, but Youngs looks nowhere near the player who was selected to tour with the Lions two years ago, and Heinz is very much an untried risk at International level.

  13. Absolutely Andy, Youngs was awful against Ireland and I would now have Heinz as the starting 9. Another issue with naming the team early and EJ squad decisions… Who wouldn’t consider Spencer for Youngs a viable change if it was available!

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