Two weeks into the 2017 Six Nations and there are two contrasting narratives swirling around the England team.
The first is that they have extended their win streak to 16 matches, remain on course for a second consecutive Grand Slam and whilst performing well below their expectations, are finding ways to still win their matches.
The second is that they are running on borrowed time, escaping defeats by the skin of their teeth and that if they don’t fix their deficiencies in short order, that stumble is going to come sooner rather than later.
As is often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in between the two viewpoints.
There is no doubt that England’s last two performances have been significantly below par, but it’s also hard to refute the hard-edged ability to win that they have developed, which is personified by the composure and self-belief they have shown to overcome second-half deficits and secure late wins against both France and Wales.
But to quote Eddie Jones after his side’s narrow 21-16 win in Cardiff on Saturday, England have used up all of their “get-out-of-jail cards.”
With a two-week preparation period before England welcome Italy to Twickenham, it would seem the perfect time to analyse what is not clicking within the team and attempt to rectify it, whether that be with personnel changes or a different tactical approach.
Don’t expect a raft of changes, as the Italy game is sandwiched between two bye weeks and it could leave players with three straight weeks of no rugby in the build-up to the visit of Scotland, but there is an opportunity to make a small amount of potentially beneficial switches.
Two of which could be Jamie George and Ben Te’o coming into the starting XV.
Jones’ use of his bench, or ‘finishers’ as he likes to call them, has been very effective over the opening two rounds but if any two of these ‘finishers’ have put up their hands to say they should be starters, it is George and Te’o.
No one should doubt the role that Dylan Hartley has played in England’s resurgence, nor the measured leadership he has brought as captain, but with England missing both Mako and Billy Vunipola, their lack of consistent front-foot ball has been noticeable and it is something George can help deliver.
England did have more success breaking the gain line against Wales than they did against France, but it was still sporadic and on multiple occasions the likes of Ross Moriarty, Jake Ball and Sam Warburton drove them back and disrupted the momentum they were building.
Linked to that lack of consistent front-foot ball has been the diminishing in effectiveness of the Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph centre combination. It has gone along well so far in the tournament but has yet to hit the heights to which it was regularly reaching in 2016.
Jones was keen to bring a more physical force in at 12 in Australia last June, with Luther Burrell briefly tried, and the form of Te’o coming off the bench raises the possibility of doing the same once again. By shuffling Farrell inside to fly-half, a spot opens for Te’o, who has shown over the last two weeks that he doesn’t need front-foot ball to break the gain line himself.
More is also needed from Nathan Hughes at number eight, with the Wasps back rower struggling to fill Vunipola’s rather large boots.
Against France, he was stymied at the gain line and after a couple of promising carries in the first few minutes, faded out of the game. A week later against Wales he had more success, but it was frustratingly intermittent.
A couple of hours before that game, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip were running riot against the (admittedly beleaguered) Italian defence in Rome, primarily because of their ability to shift the point of contact. Whether it was a fend or stutter from Stander or a step or spin from Heaslip, the two Irish back-rowers were constantly making their opposing defender readjust and realign.
For every carry that Hughes made in this fashion, it would be followed up by or sandwiched between two carries straight at his opponent, where the defender was set and not only able to deny Hughes from breaking the gain line, but also prevent him from falling forward and giving his support a much easier job at the breakdown.
Anyone who saw Hughes play in the 2015/16 season knows that he is capable of being a destructive carrier but he doesn’t share the same power that Vunipola does and he cannot bludgeon his way through defenders in the same fashion.
Jones could do worse than sit Hughes down with a video of Stander’s display in Rome, or either of Louis Picamoles’ showings in the opening two weeks.
It was an erratic performance and one that was subsidised by improved fringe carrying from Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, but getting more consistency from Hughes with ball in hand will be key to any hopes England have of chasing that second Grand Slam.
On a more positive note, England’s set-piece work took a big step forward from their hit and miss display against France. The lineout was efficient, as were the ensuing mauls, and the scrum looked as solid as it has at any point during Jones’ tenure, with Dan Cole enjoying particular success.
Maro Itoje may have had six on his back, but he packed down in the second row, helping England’s scrummaging power, whilst the absence of lineout leader George Kruis has seen others step up and the group delivered an almost flawless display in the air on Saturday.
Another ‘finisher’ who fulfilled his role excellently was Kyle Sinckler, who not only put the pressure on Jonathan Davies that saw the Welshman’s kick fail to make touch and lead to Elliot Daly’s try, but he also won the penalty at the breakdown in the last minute of the game that allowed England to clear their lines and secure the win.
The temptation to give Sinckler the start at Twickenham will be considerable, especially given the distribution skills he has as a first receiver.
That said, the scrum has quietly been an issue for England since the Rugby World Cup and seeing Cole cause an adept loosehead like Rob Evans plenty of problems will have been warmly received by England scrum coach Neal Hatley. With Andrea Lovotti impressing for the Azzurri, caution may be the better approach and sticking with Cole will allow England to keep the chemistry that consistent selections bring.
James Haskell and Mako Vunipola are two more players that will have strong cases to be heard if they are deemed fit enough, but the last thing England will want to do is make changes for the sake of making them.
The likes of Ellis Genge, Dan Robson and Henry Slade could push for bench spots but again, it is not worth making changes for the sake of changes, especially if it leaves players undercooked for the following game against Scotland.
New players are getting opportunities because of injuries to incumbents and parachuting new players in and out of the side is much more likely to have detrimental effect in the long-term. At this point, England need tweaks, not revolution.
Their conservative blitz defence proved effective against Wales and is a clear differentiation from Saracens’ more aggressive system that many thought England would adopt.
Where Saracens often blitz wider, with the likes of Farrell, Duncan Taylor and Brad Barritt, England opted for a narrower press, with tight five forwards and Lawes – who played blindside despite wearing five – putting the pressure on Wales’ attack. If the Welsh carrier was able to evade the blitz, England’s fleeter players were then still available in the defensive line to cover.
Whether or not this was a specific plan to deal with a Welsh attack that often tends to play narrowly or a sign of things to come from England remains to be seen, but it was a feather in the cap of defence coach Paul Gustard regardless.
There really isn’t too much need to change defensively for England – which should be a reason for praise with defensive generals Kruis and Chris Robshaw both absent – and the biggest concerns with the two performances so far this year revolve around the team’s inability to consistently take control of games in attack.
George and Te’o can help in that regard, as can a fit-again Haskell, and the visit of Italy offers an opportunity to put that to the test.
Both George and Te’o have paid their dues and proven, albeit from the bench, their effectiveness in Test rugby. The next logical step is to get a look at them in the starting line-up.
With all due respect to the Azzurri, should the set-piece falter without Hartley or the balance of the back line struggle as it did in Australia when changes were made at 12, England have the strength to overcome it.
In perhaps the most competitive Six Nations in years, where else are the chances going to come from to experiment with new options?
The last thing England will want is to still be struggling in the final two rounds when an in-form Scotland come to town and they then must make the trip to Dublin for the tournament finale.
Jones has shown himself to be an adept coach at being ahead of the curve so far in his England reign, so don’t be surprised if he plays some of the cards from up his sleeve against Italy.