With the draw just announced for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the possible plotlines to the final are being assessed by teams, pundits, and fans alike. Wales’ chances have already been assessed, so it seems fitting to look at their nearest and dearest neighbour, England.
The English team is currently ranked 2nd in the world rankings behind the frozen World Cup winners, South Africa. As the Springboks suffer from Covid-isolation, England has won both international competitions this year and have an excellent record in the World Cup, which they have won once (who can forget 2003).
A fine strike rate too, in reaching four Cup finals, five semi-finals, and eight quarter-finals. Only once have they failed to make it out of the pool stages, infamously so in their own 2015 World Cup.
So examining the reasons why England ‘can’ win the next RWC edition, Last Word on Rugby tables those reasons, ingredients, and machinations that could lead to another World Championship for the nation where William Webb Ellis first heralded the game of rugby.
A near-perfect Game Plan
It’s difficult to pin-point a “big issue” for England considering they’ve got a settled, highly capped, Rugby World Cup finalist squad of players and coaches, most of whom will make it to the 2023 World Cup. In addition, they have an immensely wealthy union, with a deep player pool and the reputation to get what they need, including players and coaches. They’ve won eight out of nine games in 2020, and it might seem like nit-picking, but that fact indicates they’re not perfect. After all, losing one game in the Rugby World Cup is the difference between gold and silver, as they well know.
An 80-minute game to take the World Cup
The English team isn’t perfect because they don’t dominate through points to the 80th minute. They lost against France at the beginning of the year and squeaked past their second-string in extra time in the final of the Autumn Nations Cup. They also won by slim margins against Scotland and Wales in the 6 Nations. The Scotland game was a rain-soaked match their forward-focused, kicking game plan should have particularly enjoyed.
Their inability to turn dominance into points, as New Zealand did against Argentina in their recent 38-0 win, is worrying. It leaves the possibility of a comeback, even if it’s against the run of the game, just as it happened in the 38-38 game against Scotland in 2019. After all, rugby does contain random events and accidents, even if it does sometimes seem plotted and boring. If such an event should occur, and they find themselves losing, it’s questionable whether they can adapt their style, especially if it occurs late on. That’s why pundits have repeatedly called for a plan B.
Do England need a Plan B?
England can’t adapt because they rarely have to, which is a complicated compliment. Their game plan is successful and, in a catch-22 way, if they had a plan B it would betray plan A. Admirable, or arrogant, why would they practice a backup if they weren’t wholly sure of their best plan working? Perhaps it’s the pure self-belief in the team, the players and the plan that keeps them winning.
The All Blacks are renowned for their confidence, or arrogance depending on where you’re sat, so why not England? Well, the same game plan didn’t work against South Africa in the final of the 2019 World Cup. Their forwards were neutralized, particularly in the scrum, and it ended in a 20-point victory for the Springboks. They had no answer, no back-up.
Andy Goode pointed the issue out during the ANC final, saying “Eddie runs an autocratic ship and the players struggle to adapt and change tack. Eddie will have to tell them what to do at half time.”
Their game plan didn’t change in the second half, nor in extra time. The game continued in a stalemate caused by both sides waiting for a kickable penalty. Matt Dawson thinks England ‘need to recognize the prime time to attack [and] perhaps are just in the habit of not being able to complete those processes.’
It’s hard to disagree with Dawson when Elliot Daly failed to set up Anthony Watson for two tries from sloppy back play against France. It seems they’re so unused to ball-in-hand, they’re passing up organic tries in favour of pre-planned three pointers. They managed to rally and score against in the last minute of the same game, but those opportunities are rare. There’s also the argument they got those calls thanks to patchy officiating. On another day, say, the final of the 2023 Rugby World Cup, they cannot rely on luck.
England has the Solution for the 2023 Rugby World Cup
The English team doesn’t need to panic. They don’t need to make wholesale changes, or particularly do anything different. Due to the rules, the game is rigid and lacklustre. It means all teams are scoring fewer tries, including England, but it suits them for now. Eddie and his boys need to be ready for when World Rugby adjust the laws again, which will hopefully allow more attack-focused play. When that happens, or even when they’re losing, they don’t need a plan B; they just need to loosen plan A up a bit.
Even as complicated as it is now, rugby is a simple game. England’s imposing forward pack will never go out of fashion, but that can’t be all. They need to dilute the plan slightly by using their backs more. That includes trying set-pieces, offloads, even going for the corner instead of the points. Their backs have the ability to score and they usually have the possession and territory to try. It’s a case of trusting themselves, as well as the game plan. It would be a confirmation of their belief in their whole system to do so.
Long list of positives
It seems almost as nit-picky to point out England’s positives and why they could win the 2023 Rugby World Cup, especially when they face a similar path they took to the final last year thanks to the pool draw. They have all at their disposal, apart from the weather to play rugby all year round. If Eddie Jones wanted to, he could change the whole team and style of play week in and week out and still do okay. He doesn’t need to since he’s put together a strong squad that will make it to the 2023 World Cup. The average age of the starting squad vs France was 27.26 years old, whilst the bench was 25.5 years old.
The only players over 30 to play against France in the final of the ANC were Ben Youngs, Jamie George, Jonny May and Joe Marler. Since those players are favourites of Jones’s, it seems likely each player in the squad will make it to the 2023 World Cup should they want to. Others will make it and likely not see another having crossed the 30+ threshold. May could even make it to the next World Cup based on his form.
With that, there’s also a healthy amount of competition for those already established in the team from those coming through. Players like Jack Willis, the top jackler in the Premiership last season, Ben Earls and Ollie Thorley, tied top try scorers, have just been capped. Sim Simmonds, the top try scorer in the league this season, is yet to be called up. Many of those players would have been capped, made captain and probably promoted to coach in other teams by now. Instead, they’re kept hungry. That’s not to even mention the young Saracens squad rebuilding quietly in the RFU Championship.
Future practice needed to meet ‘Le Crunch’
The England team is well placed to challenge for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. They’re winning, but their tactics haven’t been tested outside of the Northern Hemisphere as they would’ve been against the unknown quantity of Japan during the cancelled summer tour. However, they will get the chance against an emerging nation (TBD), Australia and South Africa next Autumn.
It will be a new-style test of their game plan in time to confirm or change it ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup depending on how it works. Regardless, the adjustment of the plan is minimal. Changes could come before that, of course, during the Six Nations when they face their current biggest challengers in Le Crunch. Le Crunch (and probably kick) it’s bound to be.
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