Expert Witness: The verdict on England

Date published: June 27 2018

As England’s dramatic trip to South Africa finally produced a win, James While reviews the tour and the performances of the key personnel.

Strategy

Eddie Jones has a reputation for being a turn-around specialist.

Short, sharp shocks has been his mantra for many years and has coined him the nickname ‘Two Year Eddie’ – perhaps a cruel reference to his perceived shelf-life as a coach.

Jones is a genius at spotting quick fixes, at being reactive to the obvious short-term weaknesses of a team; however, when long-term strategic planning is required, his record is less impressive.

In February 2017, England scraped home against France at Twickenham as their scrum and forwards creaked under huge pressure. Two weeks later, only a piece of genius from Elliot Daly and co. unlocked a game in Cardiff that England deserved to lose; that season culminated in the Dublin disaster and it became apparent that England lacked shape, were devoid of balance in the back-row and midfield and had no real consistency in attack.

Those themes of imbalance, lack of creative consistency and over-reliance on certain individuals continued and in 2018, came home to roost as the turn-around specialist himself was turned upside down.

The cracks started to appear, yet Jones and his backroom staff seemed to believe their own press, focusing more so on the outcome of the run of wins rather than the stuttering performances contained within those victories.

It seemed incomprehensible that England would continue in this vein, predictably relying on static power at the gainline. When sides found a way to cope with this, the team were doomed and the losses continued to mount.

The South African tour did nothing to assuage these concerns and Jones can thank only the South African selectors (fielding a weaker side), the Cape Town rain and some good fortune that England managed to halt their losing streak.

Tactics

Recently, Jones was asked “if you could have any player in the world in the England side, who would you choose?” After a moment’s consideration he replied “a fit Billy Vunipola”.

Therein lies a huge issue for England. Jones is obsessed by size and in particular, Vunipola’s gainline presence.

This has led to a particular style of game; one based upon two runners coming off the scrum-half at the base of the ruck (or from the set-piece).

Its success relies upon two things; the runner tying in two or three defenders and him also winning the collision. Vunipola does both with ease, but few others can manage it, and it’s England’s reliance on running off the scrum-half that has narrowed their attack and made it easy for sides to defend against. Simply by hitting the carrier with one or two big tackles, they then use the second man in to steal.

The number of turnovers conceded in this manner reached double figures in the first two South African Tests and frankly, Duane Vermeulen and Siya Kolisi stole more in 160 minutes than the Great Train Robbers managed in three hours.

Elsewhere, muddled thinking at the set-piece has cost England dear; the continued imbalance in the back-row saw them play in Johannesburg for 45 minutes with only one primary line-out forward and almost unable to compete on their own ball, let alone on the Boks’ throw.

With every other nation in rugby, one has a sense of the style they’ll play, their brand of rugby. Right now, England’s tactical brand is one of bland myopic power, and sadly, teams are wise to it and know how to cope.

Selection

As far back as 2017, Expert Witness has questioned back-row balance, midfield shape and the continued fascination with picking very good specialists in positions they’re not familiar with.

Jones’ power obsession is clear for all to see, as he continues to try and shoe-horn huge locks into the technical positions of blindside. Yes, you could argue Courtney Lawes has been in exceptional form over the last two years and needed to start, but how can Jones continue to pick players out of position yet ignore the talents of the likes of Don Armand, Mark Wilson (until the second and last Test) and other guys who are week in and week out the best performers in domestic rugby?

Even when selecting specialists, the balance is lacking. As an example, a back-row containing Vunipola, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell has no real primary line-out forward. Yes, Robshaw is an admirable part timer, but domination means having options in both attack and defence. The Springboks fielded five forwards in each Test that could be considered solid options; England, at times, had one or two.

Elsewhere, the midfield selection is frighteningly inconsistent. Do England want a power 12 like Ben Te’o? Do they want a runner at 13 like Jonathan Joseph? Do they want Owen Farrell’s solidity at 10 or George Ford’s impish spark?

The key here is there needs to be a consistent shape of attack. Picking such contrasting talents on a seemingly ‘by rote’ basis doesn’t allow this shape to develop.

After three years, England are no closer to finding that shape than they were when Jones took over and the continued mixed messages coming out of his eccentric selections are of great concern.

Culture

For those of us old enough to recall the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour there is a wonderful quote from Graham Henry:

“They don’t rate you over here, they don’t like you and they don’t believe you can win. I know, because I am one of them.”

There’s a suspicion that Henry’s thoughts are shared by Eddie Jones and that perhaps the garrulous Australian is almost self-loathing of the culture of his charges.

His abrasive one liners to the media, his dictatorial management of players suggests that, deep down, he has a lot of doubts in the ability of his players and in the quality of English rugby.

Jones is a very direct man. He doesn’t react well to criticism and will bite hard if challenged with regards to his methods. In management speak, his style is directive, a technique that works when mentoring at lower levels but one that doesn’t empower decision making or leadership. In Japan, a working culture of hierarchy and formality, his methods were remarkably effective. But when stepping up to coach more developed players, some with 70 and 80 international caps, there needs to be an empowerment of leadership and decision making on-field.

Indeed, when you look at his propensity to pick quiet and perhaps unkindly, grey personalities as his specialist leaders within the group, one sees that he likes to be the kingpin and also doesn’t want challenge from within.

However, challenge via conflict often gives the healthiest of outcomes, the most creative of solutions and with the ‘leaders’ that Jones picks, it could be rightfully asked if they’re selected on their ability to deliver his wishes or truly to deliver their intellect and tactics.

A former England player recently described the atmosphere at England’s training ground as ‘cutlery on porcelain’, a reference to the lack of the usual banter and noise found within the team restaurant.

A team thrives on spirit and banter. That comes from belief and trust and that extends itself from the training ground to the field of play.

A winning culture needs to develop from within and Jones’ directive style will stifle that mechanism if the players are not enjoying the regime nor feeling able to shape the culture to their personalities and skills. It’s pretty clear that this cultural divide is at the absolute root of England’s issues and perhaps Jones needs to let go in order to allow the players to grow into leaders themselves.

The future

South Africa in fairness provided precisely the right level of opposition for England. Pacy in attack, powerful in contact, they extended England in areas that many thought were weak, and perhaps once could argue that Jones’ thinking should be better informed as a result.

Provided they build upon the good points that have come out of the tour and also learn from some of the huge errors, then they’ll be in a better place for it come 2019.

What is certain is it would be foolhardy to jettison anyone of quality at this stage. The key is to learn and learn honestly from the experiences and to learn to select properly and specialists as specialists.

England need to sort their shape, their selection and their culture. They’ve wasted three years experimenting with power rugby and bizarre selections but time is running out and the education they’ve received in the Highveldt needs to frame their future, otherwise there will be no hope of success in Japan.

James While is a freelance journalist and the creator of Expert Witness, now in its tenth year on Planet Rugby, A qualified coach, he represented Headingley, Birmingham and Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton RFC’s as a back-row forward, gaining the dreaded title ‘utility forward’. He is also the Conference Producer of www.mipim.com, the world’s biggest real estate conference.