State of the Nation: England’s series win in Australia lays solid foundations as Rugby World Cup hopes given boost

Date published: July 22 2022 - James While

Now that the 2022 July internationals are wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the northern hemisphere nations. First up, England.

A three-match tour of Australia on the back of the longest ever Premiership season was always going to test both the depth and the fitness of the England squad.

After a confusing Six Nations campaign where they finished third, travelling down under with a litany of unavailable players against one of the big southern hemisphere three was always going to be a challenge, but with that came the opportunity of rebalancing the squad with both youth and recalled experience.

Areas of concern included the set-piece and breakdown, together with a worry about the lack of power running at England‘s disposal, both in midfield and in the back five of the pack, with questions also asked about the fluidity and shape of the English attack.

Recalls and caps

However, Eddie Jones once again came good, winning two from three, a return that, given the unavailability situation, sheer player fatigue and questionable Six Nations form, was substantially above par, despite Jones losing his much-coveted clean sweep record against his birth country as England coach.

His selection was intelligent, pragmatic and focused. We saw the recall of the Vunipola brothers and Danny Care – three proven Test quality player; the re-emergence of Owen Farrell as the vital midfield influence alongside the ever-improving Marcus Smith. Couple this with the return from injury by Jonny Hill and the welcome addition of youngsters such as Henry Arundell, Tommy Freeman and Guy Porter and you’ll conclude that Jones knows a lot more about his 2023 Rugby World Cup squad than he did at the end of June.

The biggest gain was that of physicality; Hill and Billy Vunipola added a lot to England’s heft, with the former, when not consulting on opposition hair styles, looking like a high quality Test tighthead lock and a real menace around the rolling maul. With Vunipola, you know what you’re going to get – tireless carry, powerful tackle and a presence on the gainline that fixes defenders to create space for others. Add to this Ollie Chessum’s progression, which was so impressive that it allowed England to win the third Test without Maro Itoje and it’s fair to say that the pack is now very functional.

Stars emerge

On the subject of progression, both Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward turned the corner from Test performer to world class exponents of their positions. Genge’s power in the loose was a telling feature of the series – and his improvement was characterised by two bullocking charges that left players of the calibre of Michael Hooper and Samu Kerevi trailing in the dust of his footsteps.

Lewis Ludlam’s impact off the bench and thundering performance in the third Test brought a new dimension of carry and ruck presence that will serve any position in the back-row well, whilst Joe Heyes and Will Stuart did enough at tighthead to answer some of the concerns over one of England’s less well-resourced positions.

But in the backline, we saw two starlets start to shine – a couple of players that could well be nailed on starters come the World Cup – Jack van Poortvliet and Freeman had simply exceptional tours, the former grabbing a Man of the Match award in the second Test then turning the fortunes of the third from the bench, and the latter featuring in some of England’s more probing attacks. The future is bright for both and there’s a murmur of expectation and excitement every time these two get the ball in their hands.

Sadly, as some rise, others fall. Care’s confidence in the Harlequins shirt evaporated in the Sydney heat in the final match and his future is questionable given his age. Harry Randall didn’t feature at all in Australia and in the back-row, Sam Underhill struggled once again to live up to the plaudits some fire his way, looking one dimensional compared to any of Tom Curry, Ludlam or Jack Willis (who impressed in his 20 minutes off the bench).

On pitch

In terms of the on-pitch efforts, it would be remiss not to mention the most effective player on either side during the series – the immense and world class presence of Courtney Lawes on the blindside flank. With more jackal success and more completed tackles than any other player in the whole of the series, his game has gone to something near mercurial heights.

A recalcitrant yet authentic leader, Lawes is, without doubt, becoming an all time great of the England game – and above all, he has to stay in the back-row – where he offers maul presence, tackles galore and a nose for a poach that’s up there with the best.

England’s defence under Anthony Seibold is finally starting to gel. The gravel-voiced Aussie was a rookie at this level when first employed, but he brings energy and is learning structure – Porter was an asset for him defending the 13 channel and, whilst still not at the heights of the John Mitchell era, England’s leaks are starting to be plugged.

With power in the set-piece and in contact, the next evolution of England will be improving attack and that will be a key focus of 2022/23. When Jones spoke exclusively to Planet Rugby in May regarding the key relationship between Farrell and Smith in midfield his response was simple – ‘There isn’t one mate! They’ve hardly ever played together!” was his blunt assessment.

Whilst absolutely correct, Jones will be pleased with the progress the contrasting duo have made in Australia. For Smith it’s a learning curve to be something of a second voice alongside Farrell and bedding in the shared duty of playmaker is absolutely key, given the paucity of options England still appear to have in the centre positions.

As the last leg of World Cup preparation begins, Jones moves into this period knowing he has the forward firepower, set-piece and defensive system to be a foundation of his campaign. His key priority now is the hone the blunted edge of his attack and to deliver the points on the board that the possession and territory his pack have created.

It’s a solid B Grade of a tour; the next challenge is to take that to an A+ in the next 12 months – and with a taxing November Test schedule followed by the relative luxury of three matches at home in the Six Nations, England expects Jones and his charges to deliver and to deliver with some style.

READ MORE: Eddie Jones: England boss backed by the RFU ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup