With England still licking their wounds from their lacklustre display in the defeat to France in Paris on Sunday, head coach Eddie Jones has named a starting XV with five new faces for the challenge of Scotland in the Six Nations.
The opening 40 minutes in Paris were among the worst in England’s recent history, as they conceded 17 unanswered points to a French side who were inspired and invigorated by their new coach and new combinations on the pitch. The second half was not much better for England, albeit for two individual moments of brilliance from wing Jonny May.
The tests keep on coming for England, however, who are now set to face a fired-up Scottish team for the Calcutta Cup in Edinburgh on Saturday. Gregor Townsend’s side weren’t at their best in Dublin in their tournament opener, although they certainly showed more than England did in Paris and their recent form against England has been solid, recording a memorable draw at Twickenham in 2018 and a win at Murrayfield in 2017.
Scotland won’t lack for motivation, either, with England back row Lewis Ludlam having come out prominently over the past week, citing the two nations hatred of one another and that it is going to be “war” when the two sides meet at Murrayfield on Saturday. You can’t fault Ludlam’s enthusiasm, although coming off the back of England’s display on Sunday, it’s not coming from a position of strength. Based on that showing, Scotland will not lack for confidence coming into the game.
Ludlam will be a focus for plenty of attention on Saturday, too, as he is one of the five changes to the starting XV, where he will join Tom Curry and Sam Underhll in the back row. The other new arrivals in the team are Mako Vunipola, George Kruis, Willi Heinz and Jonathan Joseph, the first three of whom have come in as tactical switches, whilst Joseph replaces the injured Manu Tuilagi.
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Watch: Owen Farrell and Eddie Jones face the press after the loss to France
It’s a proactive selection from Jones, who is clearly looking to address the issues that England had with a lack of ball-carrying and contestable kicking on Sunday against France. The return of stalwart Vunipola to loosehead will certainly help provide some much-needed go forward, although the spotlight will fall heavily on Ludlam, who previously announced himself to international rugby with some potent ball-carrying last year.
Whilst Curry and Underhill have thrived with their ability to run incisive lines and penetrate defences in the open space, they struggled against France to make that ground closer to the ruck. Given England’s tendency to go to one-out runners in that game, the personnel was not built towards succeeding at that goal. With Vunipola and Kruis back into the tight five and Ludlam’s almost violent style of ball-carrying added to the mix, it could be a more profitable approach for England up in Edinburgh.
If that success at the gain-line can be achieved, England’s tempo and ability to negate Scotland’s defensive line speed will both be positively affected as a result and players like Owen Farrell and Joseph will be given the space and time to prosper in. They will miss the physical presence of Tuilagi, whose opening two carries against France promised a lot, but if the pack can shoulder the burden of getting England moving forward, it’s a midfield and back line built to thrive on the back of that.
Five changes to the starting XVhttps://t.co/7o0WavNHkU
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 6, 2020
The other notable change is 33-year-old Heinz coming in at scrum-half for long-term starter Ben Youngs. The Leicester Tiger did not have his best game against France, where his box-kicking largely over-kicked the English chase and he struggled to instil the tempo he would have liked to had England’s forward pack been able to consistently get over the gain-line. Heinz’s arrival in the second half did prompt a noticeable improvement in both of these facets and he has been rewarded with a starting role as a result.
Jones has certainly moved to address the weaknesses that his side showed in their tournament opener and has gone a significant way to dispelling notions of his stubbornness. That said, these are plasters for bullet wounds that are readily available to him in the current squad, and do not deal with the wider issues regarding England’s reliance upon the Vunipola brothers and two veteran scrum-halves, at least one of whom is very unlikely to play through to the next Rugby World Cup.
England are no closer to working out whether or not Ellis Genge can carry the burden of being a primary ball-carrier for the side and maintaining the side’s strengths at the scrum from the start, whilst there is no like-for-like replacement for Tuilagi being groomed in the midfield. Vunipola and Tuilagi are unique players and there’s no simple solution for replacing what is lost when they don’t play, but England are no closer to discovering what those replacements look like over the next few years.
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— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2020
The story is the same in the back row where Billy Vunipola’s injuries invariably leave England struggling to create the platform they need for the rest of the team to succeed. With heavy duty carriers like Mako Vunipola and Kruis brought in for the Scotland game, that deficiency will be lessened, but again, nothing has been done to find an alternative to the skills the younger Vunipola brother brings at No 8. Nathan Hughes has not been recalled, Alex Dombrandt has not been called up and Ted Hill remains in the squad but not involved in the match day 23.
No one doubts the ball-carrying ability of Ludlam, Earl, Zach Mercer and Sam Simmonds, although all have seemed either surplus to Jones’ requirements or not fitting the exact Vunipola mould, despite England’s attempts to consistently play as though they have a player in that mould in their back row. Curry is one of the best flankers in international rugby currently, but he struggled to pick up the ball-carrying slack against France, not to mention having some struggles controlling the ball at the base of the scrum and seeing his usual proclivity over the ball lessened as a result of his other responsibilities on the pitch.
Likewise, the picture is no clearer at scrum-half. Youngs struggled against France and the answer was to go to a player who will be 37 at the next Rugby World Cup. As a move to get England back to immediate winning ways, it’s a positive one, although as a move to prepare England for going one step further in 2023, it makes little sense. You could not blame Ben Spencer or Dan Robson for a feeling of despondency at this point in time.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 6, 2020
The changes that Jones has made for the trip to Murrayfield clearly show his willingness to be adaptable and that is something to be praised. He hasn’t stubbornly forged on with the same composition of the squad that struggled so noticeably in France.
More experimentation will undoubtedly come on the tour of Japan in July, although using the furnace of the Six Nations to forge the next generation of a squad worked out well for France on the weekend and if they back up that performance against Italy this weekend, England will feel they are losing ground to a fast-improving Les Bleus side.
If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards.
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