England’s defeat in Paris was extremely disappointing. Where the Rugby World Cup win over New Zealand had thrilled and offered so much promise, familiar failings were exposed by South Africa in the final, and again by France on Sunday.
Eddie Jones has picked the same squad to prepare for the next match against Scotland in Murrayfield, Gregor Townsend will be plotting another defeat of the English, and there seems to be a refusal by Jones to acknowledge any failings in selection, even though it seems so obvious to the rest of us.
In my opinion, there is no spine around which this team is built. Where are the leaders in central positions, such as hooker, Number 8, scrum-half, fly-half and full back?
Jamie George is a fine player, solid at the set piece and often outstanding in the loose. He has the ability to look for space and throw a pass, which is most unusual for a traditional English forward, and is streets ahead of the next best hooker.
But from there it gets a lot worse.
Tom Curry is a brilliant flanker, but he had a shocker at Number 8 – which was entirely predictable. Despite having the ascendancy in several scrums, there was insufficient control at the base, which meant that the ball was either lost, or distributed away before Nigel Owens could blow for a penalty. This wasted several scoring opportunities, and failed to press home one of the few advantages that England enjoyed.
Moreover, at just 21 and playing out of position, Curry cannot be expected to galvanise a forward pack in the same way as a Lawrence Dallaglio or Kieran Read, and England sorely missed some leadership in the pack.
This issue was exacerbated by Ben Youngs continuing his poor run of form at scrum-half. Youngs seems short of confidence, despite nearing a century of England caps, and when quick ball is the order of the day against a ferocious defence, any hesitation before a ponderous pass immediately puts the team on the back foot. And again there’s no leadership, with an out-of-sorts Youngs unable to bark orders at the young pack in front of him.
Outside Youngs, George Ford had a superb World Cup, but thrives on the front-foot ball that has been so lacking in the past two outings. He is famously indecisive in retreat, and apparently unable to change tack if things aren’t going England’s way. Perhaps this is due to being overshadowed by his old friend Owen Farrell beside him in the centres, arguably the best fly-half in the side. England’s captain can be one of the best players in the world, but is also prone to petulant moments which undermine his own authority and instead of having two commanding playmakers at 10 and 12, we have two men equally capable of capitulation.
Finally at full-back, George Furbank had a debut to forget and this feels like it’s becoming a problem position for England. It wasn’t long ago that people were crying out for more attacking creativity than Mike Brown could offer at 15, but Brown’s experience and leadership would be extremely welcome now. Elliot Daly had an underwhelming run before and during the World Cup, and we can’t expect Furbank to offer any steady leadership at this stage of his career. I’m all for giving him a run in the side, as long as the leadership void is filled elsewhere.
I’m not making a case for wholesale changes by any means, but Jones must be prepared to change things up in the two-week break after the Scotland match this weekend.
Alex Dombrandt would be the first name on my call-up list, followed by as many as two or three scrum-halves to start integrating them into the squad. Dombrandt can offer powerful, direct ball-carrying, the sort of which can inspire others around him, galvanising the entire pack and giving everyone else something to work with on the front foot.
If England can shore things up at 8 and develop any sort of depth at 9 – such critical positions in the spine of the team to facilitate England’s attacking game – we may yet see everyone else playing with more authority.