At the culmination of the calendar year in only a few days time, Last Word On Rugby author Alistair Stokes reviews England Rugby 2017.
England headed into the year off the back of their unbeaten 2016 season, fresh with the confidence of beating Australia four times in a row. Eddie Jones’ side enjoyed a near perfect season, tasting defeat to only Ireland in the Six Nations final round. Last Word On Rugby author Alistair Stokes reviews England Rugby 2017.
Six Nations – February to March
While most sides would still be coming down from the ensuing excitement of one loss in a year, England’s mindset will be far from ecstatic. In 2016 the side never looked like losing, enjoying supreme confidence not matched since the 2003 World Cup win.
This year saw a few kinks appear in the ‘white armour’, dulling the highs of 2016. As a result England had a much tougher Six Nations campaign than most predicted.
The old cliche ‘good teams win ugly’ is overused at times, but was rather fitting on this occasion. England’s wins over Wales, France, and Italy left fans closer to the edge of their seats than anticipated. The men-in-white ground out the wins whilst under performing by their own standards. Wales would have beaten England if not for a questionable Jonathan Davies kick in the dying minutes. George Ford, Owen Farrell, and Elliot Daly should be credited for capitalising on the opportunity for a dramatic match-winning score.
Winning Ugly Became a Constant in Six Nations
The same can be said of the France game, with Ben Te’o crossing for his try in the final ten minutes to seal his sides’ three-point point victory at Twickenham.
Then ‘Ruckgate’ stole the headlines after the Italy game and posed difficult questions of England’s on-pitch problem-solving. And finally, the loss in Dublin brought the reality of competition home. England would not always have it their own way.
The Six Nations may have halted England’s momentum, but the reality check will benefit them in the long run. With the loss of Mako and Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and George Kruis for the most or entirety of the tournament, the depth and resilience of the rose was well tested. Eddie Jones’ coaching and playing staff were forced to answer questions that would otherwise have been left unanswered, lurking under the surface.
Argentina ‘Development’ Tour- June
As usual, Jones stirred up plenty of debate with his summer series squad announcement. The former Australian head coach took a 31-man-squad filled with youngsters and old heads, with little in between.
The 18-year-old Curry twins, 19-year-olds Nick Isiekwe and Joe Cokanasiga and 20-year-olds Jack Maunder and Sam Underhill were the youngest of the lot. The youngsters found themselves paired with the experience of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Danny Care. All of whom were over 30 and had between 55 to 84 caps each.
Many considered this a third/fourth string side rather than the expected second string; in the absence of the British and Irish Lions tourists. Nevertheless, the development squad went out and won both tests, 38-34 and 35-25 respectively. While the first test was yet another last-minute win – through a dramatic Denny Solomona try – you wouldn’t have described the win as gritty or disappointing. England yet again came away victors, quelling any talk of unconvincing performances with the inexperienced nature of the squad.
The biggest positive taken away from this summer tour was the performances of the young Tom Curry and Charlie Ewels. The novices took on an admittedly well travelled but physical Argentinian pack, looking perfectly at home at test level intensity. Both are currently pushing for spots in an England 23 for the impending 2018 Six Nations.
Autumn Internationals – November
In the final chance to come together in 2017, England welcomed back their Lions comrades, eager to right the wrongs committed eight months previously in Ireland. Eddie Jones & co. headed into their Argentina clash without three of their biggest names: Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola. Jones choosing to rest Farrell and Itoje after a tough season, while Vunipola continued his recovery from shoulder surgery.
The phrase ‘Good teams win ugly’ was again brought to the fore, fittingly so. England were far from their 2016 selves, looking rather sluggish and seemingly struggling to impose their game plan.
The side returned the following week for the Australia clash obviously hurting from the previous week’s criticisms. Farrell and Itoje returned to the side, playing their role in a much-improved winning performance. The ball just seemed to bounce favourably for the Englishmen, with Elliot Daly scoring a try even the All Blacks couldn’t recreate if they tried. You’d need a magnifying glass to find that one in touch.
— Pasion Por Rugby (@PasionPorRugby) November 18, 2017
Dylan Hartley’s men went into their final game of 2017 against Samoa, buoyant from their dismantling of Australia. Jones had rung the changes with Danny Care, Jamie George and Ellis Genge, Charlie Ewels, Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds all earning rare starts. From the way many talked about the performance, you’d never have guessed England won 48-14. Both the England coaching set-up and fans should be happy with the victory. When any side starts without their seven most important players, the performance is going to dip, without question.
Looking ahead to 2018
Jones was able to stress-test his side without their superstars and learn the true value of his squad’s depth. England will look to hit their straps in 2018, although we may not see it until the mid-latter end of the year. If Jones plans to test players, strategies or systems, his latest chance is the South African Summer tour.
By the Autumn internationals, England will have to be ramping up towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup. With Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi possibly making their injury return, there is plenty to be excited about.
So clear your weekends for plenty of rugby in the New Year, and watch this space for the latest England news.
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