England versus Wales encounters rarely disappoint and Saturday was no different. This has to be one of the more barmy matches, which had everything. Make no mistake Wales deserved their Triple Crown. A scoreline of 40-24 was perhaps pumped up by a few referee howlers, but clinical Wales were the better team. For England, their winter of discontent continues. Conceding 40 points throws yet more negative spotlight on Eddie Jones and his team. It does not get any easier with France coming to Twickenham followed by a trip to Ireland.
French referee Pascal Gauzere will not be invited to England’s Christmas party. Two highly controversial decisions that led to two converted tries will be the topic of many discussions over the coming days. England to their credit, all be it through gritted teeth, have rightly maintained the company line of having to accept Gauzere’s decisions. England’s huge problem was 14 penalties and their indiscipline. An existing problem that has not gone away.
Indiscipline crippling England
England’s discipline has been a problem for a few years. Not just yesterday in Cardiff. Maro Itoje as wonderful a player that he is, plays so close to the line. He was pinged five times against Wales. Having brought themselves commendably back to 24-24, England inexplicably – led by the bench – conceded four quickfire penalties.
They were all coach-killers. Charlie Ewels infringing at the lineout deep in Wales territory. Jonny Hill clumsily flying over the top of a ruck. Ellis Genge covering Billy Vunipola and preventing the opposition from being able to challenge for the ball. Dan Robson blocking an opponent’s run to challenge for a kick-chase. It was a horrible last 15 minutes which England will have nightmares about. What was so frustrating about it was that England despite a crippling penalty account were playing bouts of their best rugby since the World Cup.
Clinical Wales defeat England
Where to now for Jones and Farrell
This was a defining game for England not just in the context of this year’s Six Nations. Clearly, this England team had not been firing since last year’s campaign. Leading players like Farrell, Daly and Billy Vunipola were struggling for form. Against Wales, the aforementioned were infinitely better. Billy Vunipola was magnificent. They were by no means perfect – Daly knocking on and then turning his back for Wales’s third try as examples. But, the intent was unquestionably there. But, England still conceded 40 points.
On yesterday’s evidence, England are miles away from being the best team in the world. The flak around the referee will cover up the very real challenges around this current England set-up. Owen Farrell’s position as captain and player is still on shaky ground. England’s rising penalty account had to be addressed by Farrell during the match or at halftime. Maybe it was and yet it only got worse? Farrell himself conceded the soft penalty that led to Josh Adams’ try. England’s captain did not make an effort to roll away off George North.
Where was the leadership
Owen Farrell is the key to what changes England might have to consider. It is still unthinkable that Farrell could be dropped and is highly unlikely. And yet, his position as captain must be under serious consideration. Managing referees in the heat of battle and keeping a team on the straight and narrow are two big jobs a captain faces. Not easy but Farrell was massively shown up in these two critical requirements against Wales. Like he was two years ago in Cardiff when Alun-Wyn Jones gave him a lesson in captaincy.
It was fascinating to watch the great Martin Johnson, no stranger himself to the referee’s whistle, providing the punditry. Johnson rightly kept on saying that Farrell needed to get his team together and emphasize the need to stop the penalties. Given how much experience that Farrell has alongside so many of his team, it was glaring how little leadership was on show for England in Cardiff.
Farrell and Ford holding England back
So much of what happens on the pitch is through Owen Farrell and George Ford. They drive exceptional standards in training and professionalism. They are both world-class players but the ‘do’ they or ‘don’t’ they play is muddling what England’s future direction should be. Having them both in the team is still not providing the consistency of performance that we hope from their partnership. Sometimes it works, particularly if England’s pack get forward dominance. At other times the combination makes one of them a passenger. Can it continue? This is one of a number of tough decisions facing England rugby at the moment.
The fact that they are both mates and rely on each other on and off the pitch further complicates the discussions around ‘change’. They clearly hold a great influence on the players and the dressing room but is it time for a change?
Jones has to consider Premiership talent
So much has been said about Jones’s brutal assessment of Sam Simmonds abilities. It is staggering given how good Simmonds has been in both the tight and loose for Exeter. The point here is that Jones’s insistence on bulk and the set-piece that form the heart of his beloved power game will automatically take out players who dare to run with the ball.
Despite an improved running game in Cardiff England have replaced x-factor on the bench for a bomb squad. This is presumably to follow South Africa’s strategy of loading the bench with monsters to further exhaust the opposition in the second half. This is undoubtedly effective if you have a dominant forward pack, which at the moment England don’t have.
It is not just Sam Simmonds. His brother Joe has fallen slightly off the trophy-laden form of 2020 but he is a cracking player. Other familiar names like Alex Dombrandt, the horribly unfortunate Jack Willis and Jacob Umaga are itching to get a go at international level.
Do England change for France
It is a question that will only increase with France next in line for England. England faces a rejuvenated France who will have no fear of an empty Twickenham that will only further complicate Jones’s options. Last year’s Autumn Nations Cup was the perfect opportunity for Jones to introduce some new faces. It could have enhanced England’s player pool to choose from. It didn’t happen and as a result, England has been reliant on players who are out of form and rusty.
Out of his current squad surely Jones must look at the following – Paolo Odogwu, Max Malins, Ben Earl and Ollie Lawrence. Yes, they may make mistakes but England rugby has to start looking at the future.
Jones will likely keep faith with his senior players until the end of this tournament. It is entirely understandable that you pick the players you trust. The question is how long does that trust run for?
Elliot Daly was much improved against Wales. However, for a 50-cap player to turn his back so close to the tryline when Kieran Hardy skipped through was disappointing. Give Max Malins a go and see whether he has what it takes? Some may say that throwing young players in against a team like France is set for failure. But what happens if he has a blinder? The same can be said for the other youngsters. Ben Earl was superb against France in the Autumn when he came off the bench. Odogwu is a rough diamond but how good would it be to see him have a go against the outstanding French backline.
And then there is reality. It is highly unlikely that Jones will do anything drastic for the next two games. For so long his experienced players have delivered so it is entirely understandable that he retains that loyalty. Unfortunately, a 40 point battering by Wales has once again highlighted that all is not well in the England camp. As ever it will be gripping to see what Jones does over the next two weeks.
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