Four issues for England ahead of South Africa

Elliot Daly

Elliot Daly

Sunday saw a 45-63 drubbing for England at the hands of a fired up Barbarians side. It was a record number of points conceded by England at Twickenham, as the BaaBaas – spearheaded by the likes of Semi Radradra, Josh Tuisova and English-exile Chris Ashton – drew England into a glorified game of sevens and seemingly tore their defensive line apart at will. That England responded with 45 points of their own will be scant consolation.

England were effectively a scratch side themselves, shorn of key players involved in the Premiership final the day before, but half the team were still experienced regulars: Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler, Chris Robshaw, Ben Youngs, George Ford, Jonny May, Elliot Daly, Mike Brown.

Off the back of a disappointing Six Nations, this was hardly the warm up match Eddie Jones would have wanted before they embark on a famously-physical tour of South Africa.

A one-off humbling or symptomatic of a deeper malaise?
Context is needed – as mentioned, this was not a full strength England side. Missing key individuals involved in the Premiership final and with a lengthy injury/’not considered for inclusion’ list, this was a non-cap match and should not carry the same weight as previous results when analysing how good this England side are. It was also a very, very good BaaBaas team – bolstered by some of the all-stars from the likes of Toulon, their backline in particular was freakishly good. Few sides in the world have been able to deal with Radradra when he is in that kind of form.

However there is still cause for concern. The basic point is: top teams should beat the Barbarians. The nature of an invitational team means there is little chance for them to get the kind of structures in place – whether defensively or in the set piece – that you need to take on the best teams. That England failed to capitalise this fact was an issue. They didn’t dominate possession, drawing the Barbarians into a tactical dogfight to stifle their attacking instincts – for example, how many lineout mauls came to nothing or resulted in a turnover to the opposition? This has been a frequent issue for the English team.

Added to the 63 points conceded here, England shipped over 20 points in their final three games of the Six Nations. While the breakdown issues were often cited as the key problem area during the tournament, given the number of points scored against us questions have to be asked about our defensive system. Indeed, although I think Paul Gustard has done a fantastic job generally (and wish him all the best at Harlequins) have England and their defensive system failed to adapt to the way the game has changed, or are the personnel struggling to execute it properly. Perhaps, sadly, it would have been time for a bit of a shake-up in defence anyway.

England reliant on Saracens contingent
England just are not the same side without their Saracens core. The Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell are central to England’s gameplan and systems of attack and defence.

Given the inspiring performances from all of those players (in particular, take a bow Mako) this England side will be a totally different proposition when are all included.

What is concerning though, is that level of reliance – in particular the ballast of Billy Vunipola (absent in the Six Nations) at eight is so vital to the way England play. Nathan Hughes is an enthusiastic back-up, but Sam Simmonds (although a great player) or Zach Mercer (who played there at the weekend) do not replicate that. Should Billy, or Farrell or Itoje, suffer an injury before the World Cup, I really worry how England would cope.

Of course, every side would suffer if it lost its best players, but – as evidenced on Sunday – there is a very dramatic drop off in quality for England between some of their first-choice and second or third-choice players currently.

Thirteen shirt up for grabs
Ben Te’o is the latest injury announcement and will be sitting out the tour with a quad injury. With the other usual first-choice candidate, Jonathan Joseph, also missing out, there is a bit of a conundrum about who will feature at outside centre against the Springboks.

Henry Trinder had impressed Jones during the training camp but suffered a head injury early in the BaaBaas game and had to withdraw without an opportunity to show any of what he can do in attack, rather just having his name tarnished a little by the collective abject defending. Jones has opted against calling him up for the tour. Yet another disappointment for such a talented player.

Meanwhile, in the Premiership final, the next in line, Henry Slade fluffed his lines with a below-par showing. Alex Lozowski was comparatively quiet when set beside some of the other Saracens backs, but by nature of the injuries and Slade’s performance has probably leapfrogged to the front of the queue – will we see an all Saracens centre partnership?

Daly, however, could now be in the running. Alongside Tom Curry and Jack Singleton, he was one of the few England players to emerge with some credit against the BaaBaas. Jones had slightly surprised us by announcing he wanted to give him a run at 15, but fate makes fools of us all. Daly shifted up to outside centre to cover the injured Trinder early on in the match, and with Jones’ opting to bring in a fullback (Jason Woodward) rather than another centre to cover Te’o, this may suggest he has already torn up that plan and intends to shift Daly up into the centres. My personal preference would be for him to play there – he is a class operator and he needs as much ball as possible, although he would benefit from the extra space at 15 and could do a great job there. Basically he is a bit wasted on the wing…

However, that there are serious question marks over a number of key places in the squad – not least, fullback, outside centre and in the back row – is not an ideal situation at this juncture of the world cup cycle.

Are England training players too hard?
To look beyond just the weekend’s match, alongside Te’o, Bath loosehead Beno Obano was also announced as a casualty of the training camp.

The latest in a long line of such injured players, Obano looks set to be on the sidelines for up to 12 months after he suffered ‘multiple ligament and hamstring tendon damage’. From Bath alone, there have been bad injuries in past England training camps to Tom Ellis, Dave Attwood and Anthony Watson, while earlier this year Sam Underhill ruptured a toe tendon, which meant he missed the end of the Six Nations. Then there’s former Wasp Sam Jones, who had to retire following his horror injury in his first England camp.

These are all ‘fluke injuries’, but that’s a lot of flukes. Some, like Bath owner Bruce Craig, believe there is a common denominator. ‘The level of injuries in these training camps is totally unacceptable,’ he told The Times. ‘What is going on in the camp? There is obviously an issue because of the number of injuries. There has got to be significant questions asked about duty of care. At Bath, we’re not having cruciate ligament injuries in training. I am unsure of whether the players are not being taken to levels that are unacceptable.’

Jones response to Sky Sports News was typically curt: ‘We prepare players for Test matches. I don’t think anyone at a club has the right to tell a coach how to train a test team … I don’t have any concerns. We train appropriately for Test match rugby … I haven’t seen any figures to suggest they are [unacceptable], no-one in our staff has suggested they are, but Bruce is obviously an expert in training-ground injuries, so I’ll have to be subservient to his greater knowledge.’

Ouch… burn. And while I certainly do not claim to have ‘greater knowledge’ of this situation, the fact is, as Craig said, there are a worrying number of serious injuries happening in England training camp.

Not only that, but – as many of us commented at the time – some of England’s players looked knackered during the Six Nations. Yet they then come back to their clubs and suddenly look revitalised? Those same Saracens players who featured on the Lions tour and looked almost dead on their feet were world class in the Premiership final. Mako Vunipola played over 30 games this season and was still man-of-the-match at the weekend.

Something doesn’t add up.

By Henry Ker

25 thoughts on “Four issues for England ahead of South Africa

  1. I totally concur with all the points made here Henry. My other big concern is that English players still don’t manage the opposition or the game as it pans out. Against the big baa baas backs no one in a white shirt had the nous to get the players together and come up with a contingency plan on the hoof. Now, that may not matter in an exhibition game but you can bet your boots the AB’s would have quickly and efficiently adapted to the opposition and nullified the threat were they in a similar situation. Clearly, players are not being taught to think outside the box or step up and speak up when it matters and that is of huge importance , not just for next year but for the future of English rugby full stop.

    1. On the subject of adapting, is it worrying that EJ hasn’t noticed his best players are performing better when they go back to their clubs. Why has he not gone to the likes of Sarries and asked what are they doing to make Mako and Itoje play like that after 30 games?
      Is it sheer arrogance thinking he knows better than the club coaching staff? Or does he genuinely believe that test rugby is a massive step up and the players won’t cope unless they’re beasted in training.

    2. Or … they are being told NOT to change the game plan. It comes from a coach unwilling to trust the captain and the play makers. I wonder what Shields will bring? As captain for Hurricanes, that is what he does – adapts and leads. Will Eddie stifle that?

  2. Add to that list Tommy Taylor. Broken in the camp. Still not recovered. It is quite clear something is rotten in the state of Eddie. They are being over-trained.

  3. I asked before on this site what the comparable figures were for the England training camp injuries against other international sides. It’s pretty obvious that the England figures under Eddie are way worse so Eddie is clearly spouting his usual ” I know better than everyone else” rubbish. Baxter and Richards have also commented on the high rate of injuries and at this rate there is going to be a big falling out with the clubs.
    If the Sarries players start playing poorly again in South Africa then the game is up for Eddie and he’ll have nowhere to hide.

  4. Again, i can only echo what others have said. Jones’ is clearly starting to feel the pressure of being England coach which must be enormous but you have to ask ,how much of the stress is self inflicted,given his intractability and ever apparent siege mentality? If he is losing the players then it’s not too late to get a replacement coaching team in,preferably one that is home grown or a balance of north and south.

  5. Isn’t looking tired at international level, but world class at club level, symptomatic of the difference in intensity between the two breeds?

    1. I am not sure ‘intensity’ wins games. Team cohesiveness and adaptability are far more important.

  6. A one-off humbling or symptomatic of a deeper malaise?
    It wasnt a one off. England have lost 4 in a row, completed a poor 6N’s and weren’t exactly brilliant during the AI’s either. We’ve lost ground and need to make it up. Not sure a weakened squad, playing in very difficult conditions at altitude (2 out of the 3 test) is the best way to find our feet. I’m really not sure how this is going to go.

    England reliant on Saracens contingent.
    Yes we do but they are among our better players. We will need to see them all at their best in SA if we are to seriously challenge in the tests.

    Thirteen shirt up for grabs
    It is, but i’m sure it comes down to Slade or Daly. Loz hasnt really played there much and is surely only an outside option. Disappointed Trinder not brought along as he would have been a viable option.

    Are England training players too hard?
    I dont know. My suspicion is they are flogged a bit too much and there are more injuries as a result, but in the absence of hard fact, its difficult to do more than speculate. Certainly the team looked flat during the 6N’s and it could be that the physical load, along with an overly prescriptive coaching method, is wearing the players down.

  7. Personally I’m no more worried about the BaaBaas loss than I was excited by the wins in previous years. Long and short, it means nothing.

    Our best 5 players are probably Mako, Billo, Maro, Farrell and Daly. One played on Sunday.

    Throw in George, Cole, Lawes and even the likes of LCD on the bench and the England side looks very different.

    For the 13 shirt, I thought Lozowski was fantastic in both the semi and the final so I’d give him a run there. I would rather see Daly kept at 15 to see how he goes there in a real test match.

    A team like this should win against SA this summer: Mako, George, Sinkler, Launchbury, Itoje, Shields, Curry, Vunipola, Youngs, Cips, Earle, Farrell, Lozowski, May, Daly

    1. Like the look of that side, long been a fan of Ford, however, have to say that he best number ten operating in a double play-maker role this season has been Cipriani and should go inside Farrell if England want to stick with that game plan!

      1. Exactly. I don’t think it is about criticising Ford, it’s simply acknowledging that the man in form right now is Cips. With Farrell at 12 to control the game too, Cips could be even better than in a Wasps shirt…

    2. Lineup looks very good with my only question mark being around the inclusion of Earle. He is very green, and hasn’t even been starting for Saracens recently. Is he merely being included because of the lack of genuine alternatives? I’m still not sure why Nowell hasnt been included in the touring side; offers something different to the other wingers/full-backs, has been playing recently and can cover multiple positions.

      1. Well I certainly wouldn’t play Brown there, and Early edges Solomona for me. So partly it’s a lack of options, but I also do think he is a serious talent. Big, quick, strong and knows where the line is.

        Same thoughts on Nowell. Maybe after an injury plagued season Jones just wants him to rest this summer?

        1. Yeh on Nowell he’s listed on the ‘not considered for selection’ so hasn’t been dropped, just been given a rest after injuries. I can’t complain about that given how much I have said about players needing a rest but he has been in excellent form – was Exeter’s best player in the final in my opinion!

        2. Yeah true, for me Denny doesn’t cut it. Not sure why the likes of Cokanasiga hasn’t been considered, offers that physicality and plays week in, week out in the premiership.
          Not sure on the ‘not considered’ list; some players are definitely out (Watson/JJ) but then some are fit. Is this just a nice way of saying you didnt make the cut? Also Hughes cant be fit, not any fitter than Nowell anyway.

  8. Mtawarira is going to butcher Sinckler at scrumtime in a spectacular fashion in my opinion. I know it’s been nearly 10 years since his sheer domination of Phil Vickery but he’s still got what it takes, when the All Blacks hammered the Boks last summer the Beast shunted the All Blacks off the ball in the scrum and is frequently named in the offical SupeRugby team of the weeks.

    1. Mtawarira vs Vickery was one of the most egregious examples of illegal scrummaging unpunished by a clueless ref that I’ve seen since Andre Watson in the 2003 RWC final (although I don’t think Watson was clueless)

      I am sure Mtawarira has improved vastly since then and if he gives Sinckler a tough time then so much the better. Sinckler is young for a prop and such an experience will only make him better

      I want our players to have a tough time against tough opponents. That’s how you improve

      1. Pablito
        Try him the sooner the better! Eddie can’t afford to take the “Oh but on paper he’s going to be mullared against Matawirra view” If you took that stance then a quarter of the team wouldn’t go. The reality will hopefully be somewhat different and result in a substantial scrummaging improvement for Sinks.
        Sinkler is good ENOUGH so see how he fairs would be my view. At worst it will be an education and he will improve (‘An investment in the future’ would be my description — the same with Earle!)

  9. A fundamental reason Sarries and Chiefs are where they are is their culture of togetherness,brotherhood,oneness and sense of purpose.Ditto NZ.Judging from body language I don’t detect this ambiance surrounding England.Unless he comes back with a series win EJ will continue to “lose “ the players-and now the clubs.I believe this tour is make or break time for Edfie

  10. Given his background as a school teacher I wonder if EJ is struggling to blend his desire for leaders (which England are lacking) with the necessary
    mateyness needed to win at team sports? Just a thought.

  11. How about smarter rugby? More options available @ centre? Being more EFFECTIVE @ breakdown? Better decision making? Also interesting that no many of the above complaints were aired when England Had won, what was it, 203 on the bounce? Weren’t all these flaws foreseen previously? Hard to criticise EJ when his team were winning, I know, but EJ has a checkered history & seemingly only got the job because SA beat Japan. Historical cracks have resurfaced as per Lancaster. Can they be recognised before they will be fixed? A toughie.

  12. hindsight is a wonderful thing Don. Given his track record,you could hardly say Jones’ appointment was left field or particularly original.
    I agree with your suggestion that the winning run took precedence over player and team development and the evolution of a more modern playing style, both of which need to be urgently addressed.
    If we get one win and a draw from the Saffers series i’ll be a moderately happy man, providing we start to look like a team with an identity and a recognisable playing style.

    1. Acee
      Michael Lynagh mentioned EJ’s selection @ the time as seemingly being down to Japan’s win v SA. Technically EJ’d been available since 2003. If he’d been that good he could have been picked instead of Lancaster. I’ve opined that England have long been lacking @ breakdown & midfield, which is down to the (lack of) coaching nous &/ or belief in how to address these areas. However, it was difficult to argue with Jones’ track record.. until lately. Hard to say how the SA series will go. Jones needs success probably more than England do right now, but so too SA who’ve been shorn of 3 key pack members. Therefore, the 1st test next Sat could be telling, but, BOTOH, not if cricket’s anything to go by. Anyway, should be intense; watching & playing, although will home advantage tell?

      1. Having seen the teams, I am thinking the Boks are going to edge this series. Some very strange decisions by Eddie.

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