Congratulations to France for winning their first Six Nations and Grand Slam in 12 years. They thoroughly deserve the plaudits that come their way and will be the team to beat at the 2023 Rugby World Cup. They did not need to be at their best against England to achieve it. As for England, another mediocre campaign ends with a dark cloud around Eddie Jones’ future as England coach. In what promises to be a difficult few days for England rugby and Eddie Jones, the burning question will be whether Eddie Jones stays as England coach. During this Six Nations campaign, England have regressed alarmingly in attack, defence, selection and tactics. Last Word On Rugby analyses the problem areas for England and the personnel which might fix the leak.
Eddie Jones’ future and England Rugby – A marriage of convenience
First things first. Will England’s RFU sack Eddie Jones? It is highly unlikely for a number of reasons. Financially it will be difficult to do and operationally who do you bring in at such short notice with the World Cup barely 18 months away? Eddie Jones’ future is seemingly secure and he has some credit left in the bank. The 2019 run to the Rugby World Cup Final is evidence of that. That said, the RFU need to reign Eddie Jones in.
Fans and journalists are beginning to tire at the way Jones presents himself and his team. Don’t get Sir Clive Woodward on this subject. He is one who is sick and tired of the way that Jones launches bold predictions against the opposition which invariably rarely work out. England’s rugby team are not universally popular – particularly in a tournament like the Six Nations – so why feed opponents with extra motivation?
What started out by Jones as a refreshingly different approach to talking to the press back in 2015 has now turned into a squeamishly uncomfortable 10-15 minutes of question time. There is not a coach in any sport anywhere who enjoys press conferences but most make the effort to be polite and accountable. Jones relishes the one-word answer, is defensive to the point of being almost rude. He pushes scribes to write negatively about him and his team. His England rugby team are under enough pressure so why heap more on by arrogant and misguided predictions to their opponents and to the press?
Muddled Selection Strategy
A major issue with Eddie Jones’ management is his selection strategy. Does he know his starting First XV? Injuries have undoubtedly played a part but some of the decision-making on selection has been utterly confusing.
It hasn’t just been on a match by match basis. Players who are tearing it up in the Gallagher Premiership are struggling to get a look in. Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt have been outstanding in the last three years but it is only in the last few months that they have been given a chance. The likes of Nick Isiekwe and Joe Launchbury don’t know whether they are coming or going. Players are constantly interchanging between bench, being sent back to their clubs or starting. There is no consistency in selection at the moment.
The team line-up for the France match typified the uncertain approach to selection. Bringing in George Furbank at full-back and moving one of England’s great prospects, Freddie Steward to the wing was a desperate move. One had to feel for Furbank, who is a competent Premiership player but is trying to reinvent himself at fly-half for his club Northampton. It was a message to France that England weren’t going to stress France by putting them under pressure with their attack. That was England’s one attacking ploy – launch the ball to the skies and get Steward to catch it. There was literally nothing else until the final quarter when England had to chase the game.
If the Rugby World Cup Final was tomorrow, would George Furbank be at full-back? Very unlikely. Surely England need to pick players who are specialists in their position if they are any chance to make a serious charge at the 2023 Rugby World Cup?
Problem positions – Centres, Number 8 and Scrum-Half
England have the players in all positions. The Gallagher Premiership is a talent pool that should not be ignored. But it has been ignored over the last few years. There has been a reliance on picking favourites who have not been in form. The problem positions at the moment are centres, number 8 and scrum-half. If England are going to persist with Henry Slade then pick him at outside centre not inside centre. Therein lies the first challenge because Joe Marchant has been the best of a disappointing England backline.
Slade’s kicking ability would probably shift the unlucky Marchant to the bench. He should not be on the wing either, more of that in a minute. What England really missed was a muscular presence at inside centre. If Manu Tuilagi is fit, pick him. Even with virtually no rugby because of injury, Tuilagi is still by far the best in his position. If Tuilagi is not fit Gloucester’s Mark Atkinson, who was bizarrely left out in this year’s Six Nations, should come in.
Alex Dombrandt should be England’s number 8 for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Why he was left out against France was a mystery. He alongside Ollie Chessum made a real difference in the final quarter against France. Having Sam Simmonds as a bench option or potentially in the blindside jumper would add real impact. Jones’ tinkering of Tom Curry at number 8 will hopefully stop. An England back row of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Alex Dombrandt would be a handful for any opposition. It also allows Courtney Lawes to go back to the second row alongside Maro Itoje. It was of no coincidence that England’s set-piece against Ireland stepped up with Lawes and Itoje together.
Frustratingly Raffi Quirke has copped his fair share of injuries this year but he must come back into the equation for the World Cup. Ben Youngs was noticeably off the pace against France. All be it he was up against the very best in the world in Antoine Dupont. Harry Randall is continuing to learn his craft and is progressing but Quirke should be in the equation.
Play the players in their positions
The likes of Joe Marchant, Henry Slade, Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Freddie Steward have all been playing out of position. It hasn’t worked consistently. The back three is a case in point as we have talked about with the likes of Marchant and Steward being moved around.
There is a very possible chance that Jonny May, when fit again, will come back on the wing. England have missed an out and out try poacher – May is that man. Anthony Watson who has been so unlucky with injury is also a chance if he can get back to full fitness. There is another outsider who has so much attacking intent if he is given the space. Adam Radwan of Newcastle. The point here is that England rugby has the attacking players.
Another difficult discussion for England rugby is who to bring back from a lengthy injury list. Among them are Jonny Hill, Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson, Jonny May and Manu Tuilagi. On the one hand, it is a huge positive for England to have some experienced artillery to come back in. Unquestionably England lacked experience and decision-making through this tournament. The challenge will be not to jettison the youngsters who have come in to bring back the tried and tested. Another massive call will be what to do with Owen Farrell when he is fit again.
Eddie Jones and England rugby will struggle on regardless of whether people like it or not. A marriage of convenience where both sides will have to come to the table for the greater good of English rugby. There are serious questions around Jones’ selection strategy – both with his management and the players. Then there is the approach that Jones gives to everyone outside the England rugby set-up. Some say arrogant, stand-offish and confrontational. Whatever people’s thoughts about Jones, he has delivered Six Nations titles, a Grand Slams and a World Cup Final. England rugby fans need to have some faith in Jones and hope that he delivers over the next 18 months.
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