South Africa’s Autumn International Series 27-13 demolition of England on Saturday at Twickenham was a brutal reality check for English rugby. England were completely dominated in every department. To further compound what was one of the worst displays by an England rugby team in many a year, the Springboks were down to 14 men going into the final quarter and were fielding a virtual second-string team. England rugby is in disarray and faces a very uncomfortable few days of reflecting on their Autumn International Series campaign.
Charlie Inglefield analyses five key areas that England needs to desperately change if they are any chance to make an impression at the 2023 World Cup.
Pick players on form and not reputation
Too many senior players failed to perform over the last four weeks. Eddie Jones has his favourites but he can no longer pick on reputation. Billy Vunipola was again ineffective in the number eight jersey. Ben Youngs has struggled for a while at scrum-half. England’s midfield was entirely pedestrian which raises serious questions about the immediate futures of Manu Tuilagi and Owen Farrell.
England’s front five had a dreadful afternoon after being completely obliterated at the set-piece. The experienced front row of Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler were hooked at half-time. Thereafter Will Stuart, Luke Cowan-Dickie, and Ellis Genge fared little better.
For a while now, Eddie Jones has been hoping that his experienced players can not only perform but drive the team forward. It hasn’t happened. With the 2023 Six Nations coming up it is not going to get any easier. England must pick players in position and on form. It doesn’t mean jettisoning experience but it surely means a much more form-accountable selection process. Ollie Lawrence is an obvious player that comes to mind here. There are a few others that fall into Lawrence’s category – Cadan Murley, Henry Arundell, Raffi Quirke (when fit) etc.
I would also consider Montpellier’s Zak Mercer for the Six Nations. Forget about the overseas rule, England have regressed so much since the 2019 World Cup that all selection options need to be put on the table.
Stop the Smith and Farrell experiment
What to do with Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell. It is one of the main priorities in England’s grizzly debriefing over the coming days. Their partnership has not worked and one of them has to take the number ten jersey. Whilst Jones is in charge, Farrell is the first man on the team sheet, so he needs to start at number ten with Smith coming off the bench.
It is desperately tough on Smith but he has a long test career in front of him. For the 2023 Six Nations, Farrell needs to concentrate on his own game and relinquish the captaincy to either Courtney Lawes or Ellis Genge. England looked horribly disjointed in the second half with a plethora of penalties, backchat and errors streaming through. The situation needed a steadying hand and England’s leadership team were found wanting.
Watching Farrell doing his post-match interview with Sonja McLaughlan was painful viewing. This was nothing to do with McLaughlan’s questioning but more the pain on Farrell’s face. He is such a warrior and competitor, and South Africa’s total domination over his team would have hurt Farrell greatly. If he is to continue playing for England, then he should hand over the captaincy reigns and concentrate on his own game.
England’s attack needs an urgent revamp
England must surely revert to an out-and-out fly-half, an inside centre with power to get over the gain-line and an outside centre that can create mischief for the back three. Owen Farrell, Ollie Lawrence or Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade should front up against Scotland for England’s opening match of the Six Nations
Martin Gleeson, England’s attack coach has done little to convince the most positive of English fans that he can unlock England’s backline. One line break by England in eighty minutes against the Springboks tells an all too familiar story.
England have the player arsenal in the Gallagher Premiership to bolster England’s blunt attack. Eddie Jones must revisit the Premiership to relaunch England’s backline.
This writer thinks that Ollie Lawrence (Harlequins’ Luke Northmore is another one to watch) and Henry Slade should be the starting centres in the Six Nations. All England fans will hope that Manu Tuilagi can make it to the World Cup, but he has looked short of gallop over the last four weeks.
Jonny May and Jack Nowell had their moments in the Autumn International Series but rather like the Tuilagi situation – can they keep going through a World Cup campaign? Anthony Watson, if he can stay fit, is definitely an option to consider alongside the exciting talents of Tommy Freeman and Henry Arundell. Cadan Murley didn’t get a chance to showcase his skills over November – he is another one to look at.
Hold players accountable for the team’s indiscipline
Some of England’s penalties on Saturday beggared belief. Jonny Hill, Alex Coles and Luke Cowan-Dickie were repeat offenders. In Hill’s case, he has been called out a number of times this year and if he can’t keep his discipline in check then he should be replaced. It is killing England at the moment. Scragging the intensely annoying but subsequently effective Faf de Klerk a second or two after England had turned over a threatening Springbok attack deep in their own half was totally unacceptable at this level.
England never got a foothold in the game because they either dropped the ball or conceded a penalty. For too long England have been conceding over 10 penalties a game, the majority of them needless. Players have to take ownership on the field, or be dropped.
Make a decision on Jones now
How long can England’s hierarchy support Eddie Jones? For so long we keep hearing about how huge strides are being made off the pitch and that the attack is about to come together. It hasn’t. England genuinely look like a team who are searching for their identity, and the players still look terrified putting the ball through the hands.
The million-dollar question is whether England make the call to sack Eddie Jones and bring in the next England coach. There are still nine games to go until the World Cup. It is of course not ideal to blood a new coach this close out from the World Cup, but Eddie Jones and his team need to be accountable for the run of results over the last 12 months. They have won 5 games out of 12. It is simply not good enough. We mentioned Martin Gleeson above, but the credentials of Matt Proudfoot has to be considered after his pack of forwards were destroyed in the set-piece on Saturday. It should also be noted that Anthony Seibold, the defence coach is heading back to Australia this week. The whole set-up feels from the outside at least, muddled and transitionary.
If Jones is to go, make the call now, if not, he needs to be held to account and pulled properly into line. His stubbornness around selection, conservative game-plans and firing off a ridiculous narrative off the pitch has to be addressed and altered otherwise England have no chance of being genuine Rugby World Cup contenders.
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