England’s plodding loss to France was the first time Eddie Jones has faced consecutive losses at the helm of the national side, and only his third loss in total. It has been a wholly underwhelming Six Nations, and indeed season so far, but where has it all gone wrong?
This has been a perennial problem for England. The Red Rose have conceded 48 penalties so far this tournament at an average of 12 a game.
That’s an alarming statistic, but it only tells half the story. Teams are always going to concede penalties, be it at the scrum or from being beaten at the ruck (England learnt the hard way vs Scotland).
But it is the nature of the penalties conceded which will worry Eddie Jones. So many are given when England have possession, the time to put the opposition under pressure.
Needless offsides, feet in rucks and high tackles are just some of the reasons Jones’ men lose field position and points every game, and it does not look like stopping.
England have lacked creativity in the backs, which is something that shouldn’t happen when two fly-halves are on the field. There are a lot of positives about having two ball players in the backline, but in England’s case, it comes at the expense of any penetration.
The concept of the ‘Ford-Farrell Axis’ is good in theory, but only seems to function when a win was an inevitability anyway. When tested, George Ford seems bereft of ideas, as England move from side to side before giving away the mandatory penalty.
This is not helped by the speed and style that England wish to play. But it is nonsensical to sacrifice an attacking and penetrative inside-centre for a playmaker that has no players to play with. In this current side, Ford seems surplus to requirements.
The France and Scotland games seemed to be carbon copies of each other at the breakdown. England were under-resourced and were slowed down at best, and turned over/ conceded a penalty at the all too frequent worst.
But does this surprise anyone when they field three second rows? Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje are second rows with extraordinary work rates, but the key is, they are second rows, not flankers.
When facing high level international flankers, England have found themselves a step behind. Having such a lumbering and heavy pack has meant last year’s champions look turgid, with no fluency and speed in attack.
Admittedly, there have been injuries/suspensions that may have forced Eddie Jones’ hand, but there have been flankers on the bench every game that may have had more of an impact had they started.
The lack of an out-and-out fetching seven is a long-lasting problem of England’s; they don’t need to make it harder on themselves by not picking a six either.
Historically, the Six Nations after the Lions Tour usually favours the French. But with the French no longer being the force they were, that doesn’t necessarily apply, but the reasoning does.
Fatigue and a drop in form usually kick in, and that may be the case here. Perhaps Itoje has set the bar too high the past few seasons, but he has struggled to meet the meteoric standards that he has set.
Jamie George had his chance against France of a rare start. Unfortunately, a number of errors foiled his chance of wrestling the number two shirt for good. Mike Brown, although not a Lion, has had a mixed bag of a tournament thus far.
A man of the match against Wales became a nightmare in Murrayfield, as he was defensively weak whilst failing to make any impact in attack. However, this may not be a drop in form, rather the decline of a mainstay in the national side.
“What separates New Zealand from the rest of the world is their ability to adapt at speed to how the opposition are playing, how the referee adjudicates the game, and the conditions; England must learn to do the same.”
Since 2015, there have arguably been two consistently world class players: Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola. The latter’s absence is the most crucial of all for England as they have severely struggled to get past the gainline, and have never been able to find a suitable replacement with a workload to match his.
The injury to Ben Youngs in the first game has also proven costly as his kicking game and game management have been missed, not to mention the impact that Danny Care brings off the bench.
This is an area where Ireland have reigned supreme, only highlighting the absence of Youngs. Possibly Nathan Hughes has not fully been up to scratch after being rushed back from injury and the pain he was in against France could suggest that he was never 100%.
Additionally, the name ‘Manu Tuilagi’ is almost consigned to English rugby folklore, but there has been a giant Tuilagi-shaped hole in England’s backline as they’ve stuttered in building any momentum and go-forward.
English players do not experience such competition at the breakdown in the premiership- and it showed against Scotland. It took them 50 minutes to react, and by then, a myriad penalties and weak defence meant the game was all but lost.
This week barely differed against France. England just were not quick enough to react to Les Bleu’s rucking (particularly Mathieu Bastareaud out wide), ball-carriers were left isolated, and the team paid the price again.
So where are the leaders on the pitch, especially the forwards, saying what is needed to remedy this problem? It is redolent of the 2016 match against Italy, where England took the best part of an hour to counter the Italian’s innovative rucking.
Yes, the incumbent captain, Dylan Hartley, was missing this weekend, but leadership does not come from one player only.
What separates New Zealand from the rest of the world is their ability to adapt at speed to how the opposition are playing, how the referee adjudicates the game, and the conditions; England must learn to do the same.
It’s easy to kick a team when they’re down. The thing is, every fan knows England have the personnel and skill to bounce back from this, as well as the knowledge of how to win. Every fan also knows that this is just a team underachieving. Ireland await at Twickenham, and we will see how quickly England can turn their fortunes around.