After a two week break, the RBS Six Nations gets underway again on Saturday, and England Rugby welcome an Italian side to Twickenham that have shipped 96 points in two games. Couple that with the impact the bench has made for England in the tournament so far and there are many in the game asking Eddie Jones whether it is time to turn his finishers into starters?
Jones has famously coined the phrase ‘finishers’ in recent weeks in deference of the job that his replacements do; a term he has been able to use as the unbeaten fifteen-game streak that England are on under him, means that’s exactly what they have done. Those players finish games off.
Given that success and the fact that the Azurri are seen as lame ducks right now, the clamour is for the likes of Ben Te’o (see main picture), Danny Care & Jamie George to be given the opportunity to play the first 60-65 minutes of the game rather, than the last 15–20. James Haskell is another who has made an impact from the bench but, in truth, this is due more to his recovery from the toe injury he suffered on the tour down under in the summer. It was only a matter of time before he retook his place within the starting line-up.
Why Tinker with Winning Formula?
The question here is ‘why should Jones tinker with what is a winning formula?’ I am not so sure he should.
The victories against France and Wales were hardly convincing. Poor execution by both those teams at one or two critical moments allowed England to grab their wins. That could mean that changes are made because of those poor displays but Jones has not been critical of the players after each of those performances, rather he has criticised himself for the preparation prior to the French game and praised his players for grinding out a win in Cardiff.
I am in agreement with Clive Woodward this week, when he wrote in The Mail on Sunday; “I’ve been a little alarmed at talk of England making a whole raft of changes for the Italy game and even switching captaincy mid tournament and replacing Dylan Hartley with Owen Farrell.
“England are on a massive roll and the momentum is with them but in the cold light of day so far in the 2017 Six Nations they have won two games they could easily have lost.
“They have scraped through both by the skin of their teeth. There’s a stack of work to do.”
Moral Boost Can Help England rugby
What England Rugby need now is a moral boosting thrashing of the Italians with a stack of tries for their backs to give them the utmost confidence going into the Calcutta Cup match on 11th March.
Players like Hartley and Haskell could actually do with a strong 80 minute performance that shows they are back to peak fitness. One get’s the sense that Jones is looking for that too.
Whether the fans like it or not, Hartley is Jones’ captain and the only explanations for resting key individuals such as the skipper is through fatigue – which is not the case with Hartley. Indeed, the more game time he gets, the more chance he has to work on getting back to top form with his set piece and defensive work.
Bring in the Second Battalion
We should caution also against believing that those who have come on to the pitch fresh and have made a significant impact against tiring teams, can replicate that at the beginning of a game. With the bruising nature of the modern test match, the subs bench has morphed into that second battalion providing late impetus as the energy-delta between those who have been smashing people for the best part of an hour, and those who have been keeping warm on the exercise bikes, is more critical than it has ever been.
Personally, I therefore do not think it is time for England’s finishers to become starters. Rather, I think it is time that some of the England Rugby starters end up as finishers, and show Italy what they can really do.
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