On the one hand, England Rugby head coach Eddie Jones heads into the festive break confident that his team is back on track after a tricky 2018 campaign. On the other hand, will he or should he be concerned that only Saracens have fired a shot in the 2018/2019 Heineken Champions Cup?
What the Champions Cup has shown thus far, is that the consistency of the Irish provinces looks to be getting stronger. The likes of Leinster and Munster have been ‘imperious’ at home. Yet they have also picked up tough wins on the road.
It is not just the Irish either, Edinburgh have been excellent this season and Racing and Toulouse equally so from the French contingent.
Domestic rugby, with only weeks prior to the Guinness Six Nations championship begins, means Eddie Jones and his coaching group will be digesting players form, and the fortunes of England Rugby, over their festive cocktails.
Saracens flying the sole flag for England Rugby
It would have been hugely embarrassing for English rugby, if no club could sneak into the quarterfinals and therefore, Saracens’ enduring presence is a godsend for English rugby.
They have climbed to the top of their pool despite having a number of injured absentees including the influential Vunipola brothers. What is important for Eddie Jones is that the likes of Maro Itoje, Jamie George and Owen Farrell continue to hit the form that is required to win games in Europe. We can also add George Kruis, Richard Wigglesworth, Michael Rhodes and Alex Goode to that list which augurs well for England’s future selection conversations.
No wonder he's smiling after a stunning man-of-the-match outing for @Saracens
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) December 15, 2018
Long may it continue because England’s other representatives have been largely disappointing.
Exeter, Leicester and Bath not adapting to Europe
For all of Saracens’ success, the English representation has been poor. Gloucester and Newcastle are perhaps honorary exceptions as they still have a fighting chance to get out of their respective pools. The Tigers demise has been particularly depressing to watch – given how much quality; both English and international, that they have in their ranks.
Perhaps the most disappointing in terms of expectation is the Exeter Chiefs. They have been a success story in the Premiership for several seasons. But, Europe has put a dent in their otherwise meteoric rise. Two tough pools in two years; with the likes of Leinster, Montpellier and Munster opposing them, has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination.
In those two years, there have been a number of tight and tough losses home and away. Therein lies the problem that the Chiefs have faced in Europe. They have not quite found the ability to close out games in the final minutes. Unable to adapt to the intensity that the Heineken Champions Cup produces. Mind you, there is no question that Exeter will learn these lessons and, come back stronger!
Bath will rue the once in a lifetime error that the otherwise hugely likable Freddie Burns produced in the closing minutes against Toulouse at the Rec. In reality, Bath have simply not been good enough to progress despite a hearty performance at home against Leinster. In the return leg in Dublin, Bath’s older generation looked tired, especially in defence. The 2017/18 title holders Leinster were miles better.
Sam Underhill has been his usual heroic self and Joe Cokanasiga (before his untimely injury) was again impressive. So not all depressing for Eddie Jones to review, with his England Rugby mind on February.
Leicester’s demise a real worry looking at 2019
On paper, the Tiger’s player roster is seriously strong. Led by George Ford, Ben Youngs, Matt Toomua and a fit-again Manu Tuilagi, among many others. So why have Leicester been so bad?
It would be unfair to put it all on Geordan Murphy or any individual for that matter. One also has to consider the impact on the players that Matt O’Connor’s sudden departure has had on the squad. One minute the club had their plans for a new season set in stone, the next – and only a game in – the head coach goes. Bang!
That is where the sympathy stops though. Because Leicester’s defence has been well below par. Racing 92 has been the most recent example of this where the likes of Simon Zebo and Finn Russell have run riot over the Tigers. For Leicester, this is where the experienced players, the guys who have seen it all on the international stage, have to step up and lead the way.
A massive few weeks await George Ford
If one considers that there are up to eight current (as well as past) England rugby players in Leicester’s ranks, then that is a significant nucleus of personnel for Eddie Jones to assess. The two most obvious are George Ford and Ben Youngs.
🏴 George Ford will captain @EnglandRugby in his 50th Test appearance, this Saturday against Japan at Twickenham.
Congratulations Fordy!! 👏 pic.twitter.com/CoUciaRAOl
— Leicester Tigers (@LeicesterTigers) November 15, 2018
Both are integral to England’s plans. Ford was promoted to the captaincy over many more experienced players – that surely underlined his role [then]. Youngs was much more like his old self in England’s resurrecting November campaign.
George Ford however continues to divide opinion. He produced the spectacular; as his intercept and quick thinking in Paris against Racing showed but, was also indecisive in directing the play.
If the unthinkable happened and Owen Farrell fell foul of injury, George Ford would likely be England’s fly-half. On the front foot, there are few better around than Ford. However, if the pack is not moving forward Ford tends to retreat. Often caught behind the gain line. Eddie Jones does not want those performances repeated.
We saw that in South Africa in the summer, and most recently in the two Champions Cup legs against Racing. They were dominant. Ford was not, and it showed.
England and the Tigers need a confident and assertive George Ford, even if his respective teams are not having it all their own way. Assert himself, from an England viewpoint, and the clamour to bring back Danny Cipriani will increase.
The same might be said of players across the park. Play assertively, command their roles in the UK and in Europe, and selection will likely follow.
England Rugby’s nucleus becoming clear
What is becoming clear is that Eddie Jones need the Sarries contingent fit and firing for the Rugby World Cup. It sounds obvious but Farrell, Itoje, the Vunipola brothers and Jamie George are integral to England’s plans.
If they all continue to fire for the nation – especially in that mammoth first game against Ireland in the 2019 Six Nations competition – then English fans can get excited.
What has been a huge plus in recent weeks for the England management, is the return to form of Manu Tuilagi. He is one who has stood up to be counted. Fit yes, but confident too. His Leicester teammates must take inspiration from that.
Work hard in the Premiership, and rebound in the Champions Cup. With no hangover after the New Year.
Not easy, but many others have made the changes required, And are reaping the rewards. For the players, the rewards will be a treasured white jersey.
So on form – in considering George Ford and others – then it is possible that Tuilagi could start in Dublin, alongside Henry Slade. And this fight for places should motivate all 23 players to open the 2019 International season with an authoritative display against the World Rugby Team of the Year.
Knowing all of that, one can only conclude; what a 2019 we have coming up!
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images