Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. Next up, England.
To find the right adjective to describe England’s 2022 Autumn Nations Series campaign is hard. Dismal would be at one extreme, underwhelming might be somewhat kinder, but one thing is for sure – rather than being on track for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, the England train is off the rails waiting for some form of recovery assistance if they’re to complete their journey.
Losses to Argentina and South Africa bookended a convincing win over Japan and a rather fortuitous draw against an impressive All Black outfit. Whilst this is statistically bad enough, the performances themselves showed no sign of improvement and lacked any waypoint on the roadmap to success. This is on top of a poor Six Nations showing and an average tour of Australia, leaving England with five wins, one draw and six losses for the year with a sub-par win rate of 42%.
With only nine matches left before England land in France for the World Cup, what is even more concerning is that Eddie Jones has no idea of his best 15, 23 or 33 players, not one part of England’s play is on the upslope, the traditional strengths of set-piece and gainline dominance have evaporated and not one single player is able to say that they are sure of their place in the starting (or finishing) line-up.
Starting with the Argentina match, there’s no doubt Los Pumas are currently a top six side in the world game and it’s equally certain that they’re particularly comfortable playing on the road, given their players are all in contract overseas. But to lose in the manner England did was inexcusable; the Emiliano Boffelli try was a simple overlap move from first phase – one they’ve used to great effect for a number of seasons.
Julian Montoya makes the extra man by standing in at scrum-half to make a numerical mismatch on the openside wing – a simple move yet one that was so well know in the game that Planet Rugby highlighted it in the pre-match build up.
For England’s defence coaching team not to identify it, nor to plan to blitz Montoya’s pass channel, and then to have no sweeper ‘in the boot’ to act as secondary defensive cover, beggared belief.
Sure, Argentina scored from an intercept turnover later on but that’s something you cannot plan to defend whereas first phase moves are easily identifiable.
Against Japan, we saw size used to overcome the Brave Blossoms, with the only English positive this year Ellis Genge in powerful form, but against the All Blacks, England were exposed on the wing defensively with a salvo of cross-field kicks from three Kiwi playmakers. OK, we’ll buy that every team is entitled to an attacking plan, but it’s the way a defending side reacts to that plan that defines its success or failure.
England were glacial in their thought process to get cover into the wide channels, to move Freddie Steward around as cover and, crucially, to control the subsequent drop zone. Losing the scrum battle and gainline contest added to Jones’ woes but perhaps also rang alarm bells over what was likely to happen against the Springboks.
A late attacking rally in the last 10 minutes against 14 men at the end of a long and gruelling tour saw the thinnest tissue paper applied over England’s cracks of defensive and set-piece mediocrity; it allowed a wave of positive if misplaced emotion to permeate through Twickenham and to give public hope when to many professional judges, structural failure was already in progress.
Scroll forward a week and South Africa arrived at Twickenham bringing an assortment of the world’s best nails to drive into the English coffin. Eviscerated at scrum time, obliterated in collision and smashed in the aerial contest, England were lucky to escape with only a 27-13 victory, with the Boks conceding a try when down to 14 men for the last 30 minutes, but it was the manner with which they were destroyed that was of greatest concern – they were simply blown off the park and in a two-horse race, were lucky to finish second.
Had these have been games where England had shown improvement, a positive direction of channel or had any of their selections vindicated, then there may have been hope of future success and forgiveness of result. But there wasn’t. Jones’ selections vacillated wildly from hopeful wild card picks to over-reliance on the autumnal careers of previously average international players.
At no time was there selections based on form, nor tactics implemented that mirrored the style of play seen week in week out in the Premiership. Game changing skills such as raw pace or offloading ability were eschewed in favour of familiarity with squad systems and fitness tests that had their basis in off-pitch performance.
Players who rip it up in the Premiership every week – Cadan Murley, Jack Willis, Ollie Lawrence, Tom Pearson, Henry Slade, Alex Mitchell, Adam Radwan and Val Rapava-Ruskin had cursory sniffs in their direction, but inevitably lost out to those that had that ‘system familiarity’.
To pick Mako Vunipola against Frans Malherbe and expect a different outcome other than the Saracen’s complete destruction was an absolutely astonishing leap of faith and provided us with an outcome that was wholly predicable. To pick Maro Itoje and Alex Coles at flank and lock one week, and then in the opposite roles a week or two later showed muddled thinking that defies comprehension and was surely a decision based upon hope rather than proof.
To leave out Willis for four matches other than about 20 minutes of replacement time was borderline criminal given the ex Wasp man’s need to get rugby (especially Test rugby) under his belt. Other than Coles’ obvious superior lineout ability, it’s hard to know in what facet of a flanker’s skill set he has an edge on Willis and crucially, the chance to bed the latter back into Test rugby was lost.
Not content with the inconsistency of forward selections, the continued implementation of Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith at 12 and 10 without the correct support players was farcical. As Nick Easter wrote in Expert Witness, Smith is happiest at 10 with a big 12 to truck it up to commit defenders, whereas Farrell wants to stand at 10 with an auxiliary playmaker outside (not inside) him. This was rather like playing the best two fast bowlers in the country with a fish keeping wicket to them – in short it was unlikely to get the best out of either player.
🗣️ "If this was the Cheltenham Gold Cup, there’s a pack of four out front – France, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand – and we are fifth."
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) December 2, 2022
At the time of writing, Jones’ future is unclear, with the smart money on his departure before Christmas. He talks of a greater plan, a longer term strategy but this time we really saw neither of those. Were their any positives? Well, Genge continues to be a powerhouse, David Ribbans showed that he should have been selected a couple of years ago with a couple of sumptuous impact performances whilst both Guy Porter and Jack van Poortvliet possibly ended marginally in credit for the campaign.
Whilst we don’t know how deep the changes will be post the RFU Review process, it’s clear that England need to start picking the form players of the Premiership, to implement the type of running play seen week in and week out and to remove any preconception of ‘traditional English qualities’ when those cliches themselves are being changed by the actions of players in the domestic game.
England have nine games to turn this situation around; it’s not impossible – South Africa did something similar in 2019, but the odds are stacked high against them.