With England struggling for both form and discipline, Planet Rugby looks at the issues facing Eddie Jones and what his key foci will be in the build-up to France in a week’s time.
A quick meander through the match statistics of England’s Six Nations campaign makes pretty horrific reading. England have conceded 41 penalties in their three matches against a cumulative opposition concession of 26, 38% more than their opponents on average. Indeed, remove the Italy game from the statistics, and we see that count becomes 29 versus 15, literally twice as many as their opponents. 22 of England’s total penalties are ruck offences and a remarkable 19 of the 41 came within the first quarter of those games.
The amount conceded at ruck time is quite staggering, but the fact that this is so easily identifiable from the stats means, in theory, it should be easy to fix. The one area that’s cost England time and time again is sealing off or going past the ruck (seven out of the 21) which alludes to an overcommitment when clearing out or securing, something that can be re-coached in a short timeframe.
They say you can prove anything with statistics, but the key takeouts here are that, for a side that at their best, score early and attack early, England are losing every piece of front-foot momentum within the first quarter. In each game, there’s been an early flurry of penalties, a regrouping, which in every instance would have meant a more cautious approach thereafter, and a nullifying of any early attacking intent.
There’s clearly a need for introspection during the early stages of the game – methodically sticking to legality during the period where referees are traditionally ‘stamping their authority’ on the game and framing the way they want to manage the breakdown.
What is absolutely certain is against good sides who are showing the referees greater legality, England have spent this entire campaign playing a form of catch-up rugby and against the very best they will lose far more Tests than they’ll win, unless they can sort out that early discipline.
We’ve talked many times about England and emotional intensity and we have openly criticised Jones’ men for losing the battle of passion on the big occasion.
However, passion and anger are close bedfellows and it might just be that in the case of England, their attempt to build their emotional intensity is over spilling into anger and frustration, which in turn drives indiscipline and can fray relationships with officials.
There’s a direct correlation between the frustration and penalty count. England rightly feel they need to boss the rucks; they perhaps consider that the opposition are interfering without being penalised and then go flying in to clear, past the ball and get pinged – something that’s happened on at least five out of the seven clear out penalties they’ve received.
England average penalties conceded = 7.2 in 2019, 9.0 in 2020, 13.6 in 2021
— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) February 27, 2021
The simple pressure of results is making England into an angry side, a team that runs out on the pitch expecting confrontation with officials, anticipate unfairness and already have negativity in their minds.
All of this leads to an impossible yet self-fulfilling prophecy; as the frustrations consume them, so penalty counts mount and thinking under extreme pressure becomes clouded by anger and, ultimately, desperation.
There’s an old saying in rugby ‘to play with fire in your heart with your head in a fridge’ and that’s entirely apt here. England are getting far too embroiled with anger and frustration on the pitch and it’s both showing and costing them.
The solution is found in something called self-belief and in order to solve their deep frustrations, England need to start truly believing – not in the words to the press, but in their actions on the field.
Remarkably, for all the time this team has spent together there’s still an over-reliance on some players and, perhaps, a perceived imbalance of the personnel and the tactics they employ.
Without the powerful figure of Manu Tuilagi, a man that’s got a win rate of around 80% under Jones, they lack physicality in midfield without a like for like replacement, but what is concerning is that there appears to be no contingency planning for Tuilagi’s predictable absence. When he’s absent, it’s a question of not so much who we play, but how England play – and there needs to be an adaptation to the personnel available when Tuilagi is not around.
The Tuilagi equation is a complex one as it also informs selection elsewhere to claw back some of those precious Manu-metres in gainline contact. Other players need to step up and despite the mobility of the props, the midfield and back-row are not really contributing as they could. In the back-row, Sam Underhill’s raw aggression is one reason England have been batting on the back foot, whilst Billy Vunipola’s game seems to be more about media soundbites than midfield collisions these days and his palpable lack of impact compounds the issue of Tuilagi’s absence. The chopping and changing of Mark Wilson and Courtney Lawes at blindside was perplexing – two entirely different styles of flanker, but neither with carry and support at the crux of their game.
🗣️ "He's going to perform for the boys in around five weeks."
🕺 Manu Tuilagi turns to salsa dancing to aid injury recovery. pic.twitter.com/Ws24xKagon
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) March 3, 2021
In the back three, the continued selection of a woefully out of form Elliot Daly is costing England in every facet of the game. Objectively measured, Daly has cancelled 11 of England’s phase plays in this Six Nations alone with handling errors in and around contact. Simple knock-ons or fumbles, caused by poor rugby decisions from the Saracen and it’s time now to switch Anthony Watson to 15 and experiment with other options on the wing.
But balance, above all, is about using the resource you have to create a winning plan. The biggest issue Jones has is he’s not changing the tactics to fit the players he’s selecting and until that happens, (or Tuilagi returns) England are going to continue to struggle.
Against Wales, the simple statistic that Adam Beard had played more rugby minutes this year than the entire English pack put together was a telling one.
Selecting six Saracens, all with different amounts of rust on their steely skills, means that half of your pack and a third of your team is going into this game with no match sharpness and no recent reference of success nor form. It’s not about fitness, it’s about sharpness and, in cricketing parlance, nothing prepares you for batting like time in the middle does, and the Saracens players are severely lacking in that aspect.
To compound this, the selections seem to be made with very little cognisance of the form in the Premiership, where players like Marcus Smith, David Ribbans (just added to squad), Freddie Steward, Piers O’Conor, Sam Simmonds and Brad Shields are all in compelling and influential form but yet go unselected or unmentioned. When players are delivering like Simmonds and Smith, it’s quite remarkable that they’ve not featured, even given the restricted nature of the 28-man bubble squad.
Crucially, these guys are playing regular top-flight rugby; they may not be as used to Jones’ systems as other options, they may have question marks over minor aspects of their game, but when their numbers are as compelling as we’ve witnessed, they absolutely have earned to right for consideration.
At the moment, this is a squad that is harder to get out of than it is to get into, and with the Premiership providing a feast of entertaining rugby, we are fast approaching a situation where the form shown in England’s own domestic competition means nothing in terms of international selection and that is a poor state of affairs.
Want to see what Sam Simmonds is like in an England shirt?
Well here he is scoring two tries (one not too different to his try vs Sale) and providing an assist for Nowell in his Six Nations debut against Italy in 2018:https://t.co/BEBzZuv6jr
— RugbyInsideLine (@RugbyInsideLine) February 28, 2021
Lose to win
The last point is a big one; bearing in mind the huge challenges of France at home and Ireland in Dublin and considering where England are in the table, what is considered success from here on in this season?
Stuart Lancaster may not have been the most successful England coach in terms of results, but his work both for the Saxons and the national side saw a conveyor belt of maturing options for Jones when he took over the reins. Is that the case should Jones leave tomorrow, or would he simply be handing over the side and players that he himself inherited from Lancaster?
One might say a couple of wins from the existing team, but in truth, what would two scratchy victories really tell England about their future? Far better is to use these two games as experiments; publicly state that to the media and public in order to garner their support and understanding. Blood some of the new talent we’ve seen, even if it means a temporary break for some of the biggest names in the side. There’s nothing to lose, and England need to see if the other options are better than the incumbents, rather than worrying if the incumbents are really just ‘less worse’ or more reliable due to their understanding of team systems.
The other notion is a radical one and ties in with removing anger. Make that announcement that England will use this period to experiment to liberate the players from being judged purely on result. Tell them simply to go out and have fun – try things that have not been tried and absolutely enjoy yourself out on the pitch – qualities that appear to have been lacking in recent times.
Blood some of the challengers and in-form players in the Premiership; play with a style that mirrors the personnel available and allows their respective skill sets to bloom and lastly, play without fear and enjoy those last two games.
There’s nothing to lose now but an immense amount to gain, and if England get it right, the disastrous 2021 campaign may yet be salvageable.