In the final instalment in this series, Josh Raisey will discuss what England’s head coach needs to do to get back to winning ways.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Who knows whether Lao Tzu knew t hatwould be so pertinent to English rugby when he said that many hundreds of years ago.
So far in this series, there have been two main issues that England face: the lack of an attack coach and the balance in the back row. It would be naive to assume those are the only issues that need addressing, but it is a start. But today’s topic is one that underpins both those issues, and any other that arise, and should possibly be England’s main focus.
Chose how they want to play
Every country has a discernible style of play. Ireland play a possession game, South Africa bludgeon their opponents, Australia try to play a quick game, and the All Blacks do all of the above (just better).
Some styles may get criticism, but there is no shame in that if it brings results. Wales’ Warrenball has been the subject of much opprobrium over the years, but it’s brought Warren Gatland three Six Nations titles. Who can argue with that?
What seems to be apparent though is that England just seem to be lost. They pick two ball players, but then pick a slow and lumbering pack, incapable of generating any fast ball.
George Ford is a fantastic operator of a team that plays dynamic rugby. Owen Farrell perhaps lacks that attacking intuition but is tactically very astute, and a dependable kicker. But they struggled to play together throughout the tournament (excluding the last 15 minutes against Ireland).
If we look at Australia, they have traditionally opted for a ball-playing inside centre like England recently have, be it Matt Giteau, Bernard Foley (occasionally), or Kurtley Beale. This is so that they can split the field and have a creative threat either side of the ruck. They’ve often had a bigger ball carrier outside them in the likes of Tevita Kuridrani or Israel Folau, but not always. On the whole, this style of play has suited the Wallabies over the years, and they’ve had a fair amount of success.
Conversely, the All Blacks have opted for a powerful inside centre over the last decade. Ma’a Nonu predominantly held the shirt for a long time, with Sonny Bill Williams now taking over. They even turned to the inexperienced Ngani Laumape during the Lions tour in order to maintain this structure that they adhere to. Granted, the genius of Conrad Smith was always outside Nonu or Williams, but nonetheless, they opted for this style inside centre.
The key is, Australia and the All Blacks have chosen players that are diametric opposites in the same position, and both had a lot of success. The All Blacks have obviously been more successful, but that may be down to the personnel at their disposal rather than style. But neither was more boring than the other, they just had a different means to an end: exciting rugby that wins matches.
What seems to be apparent though is that England just seem to be lost
England flirted with Ben Te’o at number twelve this tournament and moved Owen Farrell to fly-half, a stark change to what England fans have been used to. This will alter the entire complexion of England’s attack, but it is something that is hard to chop and change. The way moves are run and the roles each player has in the backs suddenly changes completely, and it is rarely something that happens over night.
That isn’t to say that England should not just stick to one style, but it was just peculiar to throw away everything that England’s become accustomed to at such a crucial game. But Eddie Jones saw that Ford was underperforming and knew his team severely lacked penetration, so the call up to Te’o made sense. Ironically, when Ford came on in the final game against Ireland, he put in his best, albeit brief, performance of the tournament, as he brought some real dynamism into the backs, something he had struggled to do all tournament.
If England chose to play Te’o or even Manu Tuilagi (when fit) at inside centre, the most important thing is that people do not see it as a ‘negative’ move. They can be deployed much in the same way Nonu was used for the All Blacks: to draw players in in the midfield to create space out wide. The additional bonus is if any of our centres had the offloading game of SBW, it would make it a lot easier.
Traditionally England have been a forward orientated team, relying on the set piece to control games. With that in mind, perhaps a player like Tuilagi or Te’o would help to add extra physicality to complement the forwards. Sadly, with another injury setback, it may be while before Tuilagi graces England fans with his rampaging self.
Players like Henry Slade at outside centre are a perfect partner to a more physical inside centre. England won a world cup on the back of Mike Tindall at inside centre and Will Greenwood at 13- brawn and brains combined, to put it bluntly. Slade is an elusive runner ball in hand and is a superb distributor of the ball, on the same level as George Ford.
Jonathan Joseph hasn’t been at his best for a while in an England shirt; Slade has been given chance but it has rarely been with the first choice XV. A playmaker and kicker of Slade’s quality in the centres would allow Farrell to play at 10 without England losing too much potency, and opens the number 12 shirt up for a more dynamic runner to build momentum for England. With such elusive and skilful ball-players on the periphery of the England team, there is the potential for a fast and expansive team, particularly with players like Sam Simmonds in the pack.
The reason we have given so much attention to just three positions, 10,12 and 13, is that this is a central attacking spine of the team which England may need to tweak. Regardless of who Eddie Jones picks on the wing or full-back, if there is not a real attacking fluency coming from the half-backs and centres (and forwards), the choice of personnel out wide is academic.
The scrum half position is less of a worry for England as both Ben Youngs and Danny Care are very complete players. Although the game management of Youngs was sorely missed in his absence, Care can still step up to start for England. This Six Nations did prove, however, that Care is best suited as a ‘finisher’, as he struggles to bring the tempo he usually brings at the beginning of the match. Furthermore, Care showed that his box kicking is maybe just short of the standard set by Youngs.
The most disappointing thing to see was the inclusion of Richard Wigglesworth over Dan Robson. Robson has been the best scrum half in England over the past year, but his face does not seem to fit. Jones may have wanted a more experienced replacement in Wigglesworth, and the Saracens man is perhaps more tactically astute, particularly with regards to his kicking game, but it was nonetheless not very forward thinking.
Ultimately, Jones has put a lot of faith in this England team throughout his tenure, and even when the team were not playing well, he had the caveat that they were winning games. Now that they are not, he has no leg to stand on. The world of international sport is a case of evolve or die, kill or be killed. Whether England have been ‘found out’ or suffering with fatigue, something has to change. And soon.