England, double Six Nations champions in 2016 and 2017 limped into 5th place, on the final weekend of the competition, their worst finish for 31 years. There has been plenty of debate as to why the beginning of 2018 has left England in freefall.
Fatigue after a Lions year? Imbalance in the back row? George Ford? The media is rounding on Eddie Jones, and the Rugby Football Union too, want answers.
England in freefall – what’s to blame?
However in the 2018 Six Nations, the seemingly unstoppable English juggernaut has come to a grinding halt. Last Word on Rugby writer James Kimber investigates, why?
Back row troubles for England
Now it’s official – playing three locks doesn’t work at international level, unless you have a certain Billy Vunipola packing down at 8.
A problem since the retirement of Neil Back, England have never produced a poacher considered good enough to hack it at international level.
This is less of a problem if you’re constantly winning the gain-line battle, an attribute that the barrelling Billy always brings to the table. A pure specimen that with space is nigh on impossible to tackle one-on-one, retreating defenders will struggle to compete for the ball.
Without Billy, England are constantly battling behind the gain-line and simply don’t have the poachers to win the battle on the floor. Lawes is a wonderful athlete and superb lineout operator, but is simply too tall to be a ‘jackal’ at international level.
The back row needs a serious re-think. Either a genuine seven; such as Sam Underhill, Exeter’s Matt Kvesic, or Tom Curry need to be given a run in the team, or Jones will have to rely on ‘Big Billy’ being fit. The latter of which is something that looks increasingly unlikely with his recent unfortunate injury record.
Ford needs front foot ball – if Jones starts him at 10
While he may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is almost without question that with front foot ball, George Ford is one of the best attacking number 10’s in the business.
It’s strange to think that just six weeks ago, pundits and fans alike were purring over the Ford-Farrell axis as England’s main attacking weapon.
Just think back to England’s annihilation of Scotland in 2017. Almost all of the tries were off first phase, with Ford taking the ball to the line and cutting the Scots to ribbons with his vision and short-range passing.
It was all ‘smoke and mirrors’, with dummy runners coming from every direction and Ford picking out the right player every time. Sure, Ford hasn’t hit those heights for a while now, but currently he is the best option England have.
There have been many calls for Owen Farrell to start in the 10 jersey with Ben Te’o outside him. Whilst Te’o is a big defender and strong carrier, I see him more as a powerful finisher to haul from the bench and punch holes.
🌹 Ben Te'o named on the bench for England against Scotland and could face off against fellow Warrior @dentweezy in the all-important clash this Saturday! 🏴
— Worcester Warriors 🏉 (@WorcsWarriors) February 22, 2018
Against France he butchered a clean break opportunity by throwing a loopy pass above Daly’s head. Pure and simple, if it was Farrell who had broken the line from 12 and thrown that pass instead, Daly was under the sticks.
Tuilagi is another name that’s been mentioned, but similarly to Billy Vunipola, cannot be relied upon to remain fit. Henry Slade has been in and out of the team at 12 and 13, but has a tendency to drift in and out of games in the same manner.
England in freefall? Or, treading water for 18 months
If you think back through England’s performances since the brilliant whitewashing of Australia in 2016, how often have they performed well?
Sure, the 61-21 battering of Scotland in 2017 was a highlight, but other than that they’ve rarely performed well despite continually picking up wins, prior to the 2018 Six Nations.
This, along with the fixture list preventing them from playing the All Blacks, has undoubtedly been ‘papering over the cracks’ to a degree.
Key examples include the narrow victories over Wales in Cardiff 2017 and at Twickenham earlier this year. England were undeniably lucky and arguably were dominated in both affairs. A superb late score from Elliot Daly stole the show in Cardiff, and some defensive resilience (on top of some favourable TMO calls) brought home the points at HQ in 2018.
Lions fatigue – how real is the effect?
This reason has been ridiculed by other Home Nations, as players from all of the countries were on tour in New Zealand. However, England statistically seem to be suffering the most.
A chart showing the number of days between the final test of the Lions tour (8 July) and the first domestic league game for each player, colour coded to show test nation.#6Nations2018 pic.twitter.com/dEdGA1XKWQ
— rugby (@theblitzdefence) March 18, 2018
The chart shows the number of days between the last Lions test on 8th July, to their first domestic league game for each player. A remarkable 8 of the 10 players with the shortest number of days rest between the two matches are; you guessed it, English.
Maro Itoje was not his usual barnstorming self, making a number of errors with a particularly high penalty count. Watson, Lawes and Te’o looked off the pace, and players such as Daly and Nowell struggled to stay fit.
It’s been well documented that the Welsh, Scottish, and particularly Irish rugby unions protect their players far better due to centrally-contracted players tending not to play in smaller games.
This means the Celtic nations can rest their players and manage their workload more efficiently, something not currently possible with English players’ contract situations.
England in freefall, outplayed by Ireland
Overall, there are a number of reasons why the 2018 Six Nations has left England in freefall. It must also be noted that despite England’s failings, Ireland have been both ruthless and superb throughout the tournament and were deserved winners.
There are a number of issues as listed above, that must be addressed for England to get back on track in time for Japan 2019.
Nevertheless, the next 18 months will be where Eddie Jones really earns his money. Who will he take to South Africa, for arguably his most important tour yet?
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