England won the battle, but it felt like France had won the war after their breath-taking performance over Ireland. On Saturday evening in Paris, France put on a show which gallic legends like Serge Blanco and Philippe Sella would have been proud of. It was brilliant at times, in stark contrast to a turgid affair in Rome where England did just enough to get a bonus-point win.
We should cut England a bit of slack in that this was their first hit-out in seven months, but even so it was not enthralling viewing. Even so, it is a great achievement to win their third title in five years. France are emphatically back and that is a massive boost to the international game let alone the Six Nations.
England’s kicking tactics under question
Rome was bathing in 22 degrees temperatures and England were seemingly ready to put on a show. The scene was set with fresh faces included to complement’s England’s regulars. What transpired was a stale kicking duel with no plan B. Yes, they got the job done but no markers were laid down in stark contrast to what Paris laid on an hour or so later. Did England really need to play their favoured kick for territory game against Italy? This is not to disrespect Italy, but they have not won a Six Nations game in 5 years. They were there for the taking. Watching Rolls Royce’s like Jonny May and Anthony Watson forlornly chasing over-cooked kicks was rather depressing.
England’s strengths left in the garage
For all of England’s success under Eddie Jones, the kicking bombardment remains the king of their tactics. It does get success but at a cost of utilising the weapons that England have at their disposal. We saw literally nothing from Anthony Watson, who was horrendously underused on the wing. Likewise with Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph. Jonny May did his best to look for the ball but was well shackled by the Italians. George Furbank did his best but again was limited to kicking the ball back into Italian territory. It just seemed like a terrible waste of genuine pace and guile that England has in the backs.
Watching France’s half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack bristle with ambition and incision was far more fun. Those two gems in the French backline are always looking to get their strike runners like Virimi Vakatawa into the contest. Ireland were catching shadows at times such was the brilliance of Dupont and Ntamack. The shrewd recruitment of Shaun Edwards has brought immediate dividends to the French side as well. Gone are the Gallic shrugs and periods of embarrassing inactivity. In their place are frenzied Blue-shirts crashing into rucks and suffocating the opposition. Make no mistake France are back and the likes of England need to sit up and take notice.
Rustiness or wrong tactics
As England get ready for an intriguing Autumn Nations Cup, one can’t see much changing so far as tactics are concerned. Likewise, the calls to bring in some x-factor to give England plans B and C if required. Would this be the time to test out Jacob Umaga at fly half to see if he can cut the mustard at international level? A back three that had Anthony Watson at fullback, Jonny May on one wing and Joe Cokanasiga on the other would be an enticing thought. Above all England have to make more use of their resources than just the kick the leather off the ball. England play Georgia, Ireland and Wales, the first two of their games at Twickenham. They will need more than a kick-chase territory game if they are to be victorious.
Veterans need to step up
Billy Vunipola did just enough against Italy to convince the doubters that he continues in the number eight jumper. If Sam Simmonds and/or Alex Dombrandt were in the squad I would be mightily tempted to put one of them in. They are not and therefore the balance of the back row does need a big man like Vunipola at the helm. England’s pack eventually got ascendancy in an improved second half in Rome. Maro Itoje and Tom Curry, in particular, stepped up and pressurised Italy’s half-backs. Jonny Hill did a solid job despite the yellow card and he will continue to improve. England’s forwards needed the hit out and should be much better for the arrival of Georgia in a couple of weeks time.
Ben Youngs has his mojo back
In the hurly-burly of test match rugby, it is a massive achievement for Ben Youngs to get to 100 caps. He was England’s best player against Italy and not just because of his brace of tries. Youngs is showing and going and taking on the opposition’s defensive line again. Like he did against Wales in March Youngs has brought back his attacking game after a quiet few years of towing the party line. Namely box kicking. His second try was vintage Youngs and he will deservedly hold onto his jersey for a while longer yet.
Special mention also to Jamie George on winning his 50th cap. There are similarities between a wicket-keeper in cricket and a hooker in rugby. The less your name is mentioned the better. George consistently hit his jumpers and was at the heart of England’s boiler room effort which took over in the second half. He is firmly established as England’s first-choice in the number two jersey.
England to attack more…hopefully
The Autumn Nations Cup will hopefully see England throw a bit more caution to the wind. It would be great to see young guns like Ollie Lawrence, Jacob Umaga and Ollie Thorley get a chance. We know what a lot of the experienced players can bring, perhaps in November, we can see an injection of youth and exuberance. England has the firepower and flair to match France but right now it is the resurgent ‘Les Bleus’ who are showing the way forward for the northern hemisphere.
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