Expert Witness: Rob Andrew has England concerns

Date published: June 13 2018

As South Africa take a 1-0 lead in the series, former England fly-half Rob Andrew joins Expert Witness to examine the fortunes of the two teams.

Muddled thinking

“It was an epic Test match in many ways but from an English perspective, rather annoyingly, it was one that created more questions than it did answers,” noted Andrew.

“There were elements of the match that both sides will want to remember but equally a lot of moments that they’ll want to forget too.

“Faf de Klerk had one of those games where everything he touched turned to gold and showed quite unbelievable pace and poise. Combine that with the displays from Willie le Roux and Duane Vermeulen, and South Africa had the stand out individuals that changed the game.

“But it started before the kick off; Rassie Erasmus and his backroom staff did a great job at identifying a few areas of weakness in the English team and De Klerk and co. exploited them ruthlessly,” explained the former England fly-half.

“They attacked the narrow side with wave upon wave, especially from set-piece, exposing (Chris) Robshaw’s lack of pace. The 10 channel was targeted with the Boks flooding big men into George Ford. However, all of this could have been contained if England had either competed at the breakdown by slowing ball or not conceded so many penalties.”

Finely balanced

Concerningly, England seem not to be addressing the ongoing issues of balance in midfield, back-row and back three. Even more worryingly, there seems to be more selectorial issues in areas where many considered England were strong and Andrew sees further questions emerging:

“When sides ramp up pace and power against England, we are found wanting. The moment the rhythm of our game-plan is upset, we struggle to cope and we are unable to find a method to win.

“Contrast this with the Australian tour under Eddie, where we faced a skilled Wallaby side, we were put under the cosh and we found that method to win. What I don’t understand is what has changed from then?

“South Africa’s speed of ball was breath-taking at times. When a half-back with the pace of De Klerk gets front foot ball at that speed, he’s running on to it at pace with options on both sides of him. It’s almost impossible to defend in that situation.

“The core issue there is the lack of competition at the breakdown or set-piece that allows that speed of ball. England should be treading the fine line between legal slowing of the ball and a penalty and at the moment, they either abdicate competition for fear of being pinged, or, rather paradoxically, they are so exposed that they’ve no option other than to compete illegally and concede a penalty. There’s a balance and frankly, we are not understanding where that balance is right now,” explained Andrew.

“Let’s take the Nick Isiekwe situation; he’s a lock that has spent the season on the flank for Sarries. His 35 minutes lacked the grunt that you’d expect from a Test second-row and he stood out at rucks to allow others to clear, one of his core jobs. Now, when Eddie Jones yanked him off for (Brad) Shields, it left England with one primary line-out jumper, so we didn’t look to compete at set-piece ball. By answering one question (Isiekwe’s poor showing) we created a whole new issue for ourselves by totally unbalancing our set-piece, and again, this resulted in giving the speed the South African half-backs craved to up the pressure.”

Current position

“Again, muddled thinking was evident in some of the backline selections. I have no clue why Elliot Daly, who has played primarily either at 13 or wing for Wasps, would start at 15 for England with Mike Brown on the wing. Yes, I am aware that England had grave concerns over the width of their defence (or rather how narrow it has become) and that Brown offered a great defensive solution, but that smacks of negativity. In the final analysis, Daly’s mistakes playing at 15 cost us at least seven points.

“Two or three players were playing out of position and when a team is having issues with its structure and its systems, to compound this with these rather speculative positional selections is utterly bizarre.

“One other issue of concern is the absolute obsession with the importance of Billy Vunipola. He’s played about 20 games tops in two seasons and has an horrendous injury record, yet Eddie Jones continues to build his game-plan around Billy-Ball. He’s a one off and if the systems and patterns are built around him, when he’s not available or off the pace, the whole plan collapses and after 15 minutes Billy was blowing out of his backside and was way off match fitness.

“We need to depower the importance of Vunipola and if he’s fit, great. If not, we’ve a plan in place to cover his absence and I don’t feel that’s been addressed.

The big weekend

“A lot of noise has been made regarding altitude. Yes, it’s a factor and I’ve played on the Highveld enough times to understand the burn and the pain that hits you. However, learning from Super Rugby, there are two schools of thought – a SWAT team assault, where you go up there the night before and play, or slow week long acclimatisation. Both theories have merits and the simple truth is that we only judge this retrospectively, so I just see that as noise and not relevant.

“For me the key point is not what England do with the ball, it’s what we do without the ball. In order to get back into this series, we perhaps need to make positional rather than selectorial changes, although I expect to see Joe Launchbury back, if fit, or Jonny Hill selected as a line-out specialist. In other areas, we need to swap the back three around and I suspect, if Shields is to be used, it would be useful to increase the pace in the back-row and Chris Robshaw may be jettisoned in order to accommodate Shields’ greater mobility.

“Perhaps we may see a change in midfield, but at the moment the only really proven options we have started that game.

“What we can’t do is keep making the same mistakes, losing discipline and abdicating competition around the breakdown.

“Unless we sort all of those issues, Faf and his troops will just up their game and repeat their performance.

“Yes England can do it, and it’s not all doom and gloom, however, gloom is marginally ahead of hope right now and Eddie’s men need to dig deep to stave off what would be now an embarrassing fifth successive defeat.”

Once again we thank Rob for his time and Expert Witness will be back next week with former England number eight Nick Easter.

Rob Andrew MBE was a world-class fly-half in the colours of England and the British & Irish Lions. He won 71 caps for England and five for the Lions, for whom he masterminded a series win in Australia in 1989. After leaving the RFU in 2016, Andrew, who has scored a first class century at Trent Bridge, moved sports in 2017 and is now the CEO at Sussex County Cricket Club.

Both Rob and James While, the co-author of this piece will be playing cricket at Hove against the Lords Taverners on July 19 to raise money for disabled children. Please click here for more details.