With just over a week until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan, there is a buoyant mood around the England camp and their prospects at the tournament. Eddie Jones has been building his squad for four years for this moment; will it end in the glorious success of 2003, the ignominious failure of 2015 or somewhere in between?
England, France, Argentina, USA, Tonga
vs Tonga, 22/9
vs USA, 26/9
vs Argentina, 5/10
vs France, 12/10
England come into the World Cup on the back of an inconsistent 2019 in terms of form. They bookended the year with a pair of thumping victories over the Irish (now the number one ranked side in the world), the first an impressive upset in Dublin, the second an absolute demolition at Twickenham. A second-string side also comfortably beat the Six Nations champions Wales in the first summer warm up game, and they finished with a nil-ing win over Italy.
However, they have also recorded two disappointing and messy losses to Wales away in Cardiff, while they had a 31-point lead embarrassingly overhauled by Scotland, ending in a 38-all draw.
Finishing second in in the Six Nations, they scored an impressive 24 tries – the same number as Wales and Ireland put together. But over two trips to Cardiff, and confronted with a meaner defence, they only scored 19 points. Are England in danger of becoming flat-track bullies (Ireland aside)?
When England are on their game, they are red hot; when they are a bit off, they would struggle to warm a tin of soup. Thankfully, we have seen more of the former recently, although the potential for a collapse remains (how very English of them), and England will go to Japan excited about their potential.
When it comes to their style of play, Jones has been successful in restoring the hallmarks of England teams of old – quality set piece foundations and enough dangerous ball carriers to rekindle the ‘white orcs on steroids’ comments aimed at the 2003 vintage.
However, they are not just a power team. This lot can play. Thanks to the twin playmakers in midfield (whether George Ford and Owen Farrell or Farrell and Henry Slade) and Elliot Daly linking up from fullback, they are more than capable of playing flat, attacking the line and opening up and then exploiting space – whether out wide or behind the defence. They also have a highly effective kicking game and, led by the greyhound Jonny May, kick-chase.
There is enough versatility and deftness in attack, married with destructive physicality, to challenge the very best of sides.
For all the positives, this England side still have a few areas of weakness. When the game doesn’t go according to plan, they can be in danger of falling apart – as evidenced by the loss in Cardiff and draw with Scotland in the Six Nations.
There is a sense there is still a lack of leaders; those players prepared to rally the troops and adapt to the situation. Do England have a plan B? Or are they able to come up with one on the fly? As well as the recent Cardiff games, think Italy and ‘the fox’ (or ‘Ruckgate’ if you prefer) back in 2017.
The bench is arguably also not the strength it once was. In the past, England’s replacements were potentially the best in world rugby – Jones took to naming them ‘finishers’ for a reason – they often turned the tide of the game when introduced. Looking to the bench now, and the absence of the likes of Danny Care or Jamie George (now starting with Dylan Hartley out), do they have the same impact? Jones certainly seemed reticent to trust them during the Six Nations.
But, all in all, a few minor concerns, rather than glaring issues.
Vunipola junior is the key forward for England – his ability to make yards from a standing start and suck in multiple defenders sets the foundations for England’s attacking game. He is also the only specialist number eight in the squad and while Mark Wilson ably deputised last autumn, England simply look a better side when Vunipola is playing.
Playing him in all four warm up games had most fans peering from behind the sofa, fingers crossed that no injury would befall him. Thankfully, he made it through unscathed and can now bulldoze his way around the pitches in Japan.
England’s captain: a talented playmaker, world-class kicker and the beating heart of the side, the only question hanging over Farrell’s head is whether he will be pulling on the 10 or 12 shirt. While Farrell would personally prefer to be at flyhalf, the rekindled partnership with Ford probably means he will be playing in the centres. A true warrior, prone to occasional rashness, and capable of turning the momentum of a game, Farrell is rugby’s Ben Stokes. Will he match his cricket counterpart’s achievements in 2019?
Put simply, on his day, Manu Tuilagi is capable of doing things no other centre in the world can do. However, those days looked to be getting fewer and further between as injury after injury risked dimming one of our brightest lights. That makes having him back, fully fit, all the sweeter. While Farrell is the player around which the backline is formed, Tuilagi is the key to making it click.
As recently as last year, England’s back line looked one dimensional – fielding a combination of Ford, Farrell, Cipriani, Francis and Lozowski, England were overloaded with classy ball-playing flyhalves and centres. What they needed was someone to cut against the grain; a ball carrier to straighten the attack, hold defenders and make space for the playmakers to exploit. Manu is that man. Whether between Farrell and Slade, or outside Ford and Farrell, he is the crucial catalyst to our attacking game. With Ben Te’o discarded, Manu is now arguably the most essential player of all to England.
Potential breakthrough star
He will have a tough job displacing the likes of May, Anthony Watson, Daly and a returning Jack Nowell in the first-choice XV, but should the flying mountain of a winger get the nod, he is capable of lighting up the World Cup. Still only 21 and with a few concerns over his defensive positioning aside, he is a deadly ball carrier and absolutely rapid. A real force to be reckoned with – this could be the tournament of Joe Cokanasiga.
What would success look like?
For any nation that has won the World Cup before, that is the ultimate yardstick. However, it is fair to say that this England team has not been on the same level as the 2003 vintage in the year running up to the tournament. Realistically for England, anything less than a semi-final will be disappointing, while contesting the final (likely against either South Africa or New Zealand) would be a success.
By Henry Ker