We’re all still catching our breath after perhaps the craziest international match ever at Twickenham on Saturday and the review sessions will reveal huge lessons for England to learn but it’s their head coach who has the biggest lesson to learn from it.
Eddie Jones has said that England have a mental weakness and that is still an effect of their 2015 World Cup campaign. That is absolute rubbish. Only four players that started at the weekend also started in the defeat to Wales at that tournament.
Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs and Joe Launchbury were in the starting XV four years ago and then there were four survivors from the Australia defeat as well, where Billy Vunipola started but Launchbury didn’t.
England have been on a run of 18 successive victories since then and have suffered a serious dip in form after that. A lot of water has gone under the bridge and the vast majority of the team has changed so to harp back to 2015 again is just an excuse.
One thing Jones has spoken about in the past is a lack of leadership and I think England were exposed in that department on Saturday. Farrell was having a bad day and it didn’t seem like anyone else was capable of offering the kind of direction the team needed.
That is a weakness in this side but for me it stems directly from the head coach and the environment he has created. There’s no doubt that Jones’ management style is autocratic and I don’t think that has allowed a group of leaders to develop.
I’m not sure it’s possible for players to challenge the coach’s views and have an open forum and then there’s the issue of Dylan Hartley having been the captain and sole leader on the pitch for so long when he perhaps wasn’t meriting his place in the side on form.
He wasn’t likely to rock the boat and risk upsetting the applecart by challenging Eddie’s decisions when there was so much debate about his position in the team in the media and now Farrell has taken over the captaincy but there don’t seem to be too many others around him to share the burden.
To win a World Cup you need a group of leaders. In 2003, as well as Martin Johnson, England had the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Jason Leonard, Phil Vickery, Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson and the list goes on. This current side has terrific ability but not anywhere near the same leadership.
Leaders put the game plan into action and notice when things need changing and I think this year’s Six Nations has shown that England have got a great ‘Plan A’ most of the time but when they have to adapt during a game and go to ‘Plan B’ or ‘Plan C’, they don’t seem to have one or struggle to implement it.
The spine of your team runs from second row to number eight to scrum half to fly half to inside centre and England have phenomenal power in a lot of those positions but I’m not sure they have the rugby intellect to understand what’s going on tactically and make the necessary decisions.
Bar Owen Farrell, I don’t see too many thinkers of the game out there so if you manage to stop England’s power game, which is easier said than done, you’re a long way towards winning the battle.
George Ford, who clearly has a significant rugby IQ, has spent the majority of Eddie Jones’ tenure starting at fly half and he scored the try to salvage the draw but he wasn’t trusted to come on until there was 10 minutes left when Jones has admitted that Farrell “lost a bit of his edge” during the game.
I know I’ve banged the drum before and there is clearly a personal issue there between him and Jones but there is no better English player at changing the way a game is going than Danny Cipriani and that isn’t just because he throws passes that look good on a highlight reel.
He has proven in South Africa in the summer and all season long in the Premiership for Gloucester that he can run a game in a number of different ways and he is a player that would grab a game by the scruff of the neck and also have the force of personality to tell other players what needs to be done.
Letting leads slip has become a recurring theme for England. They’ve lost the second half 31-7 to Scotland and 18-3 to Wales in these Championships and they let a 24-3 lead slip in the first Test against South Africa in June and then blew a 12-0 in the second Test as well. They just don’t seem to be able to change the momentum of a game when it’s going against them.
Farrell is the kind of player and person that tries to take everything on his own shoulders and that is what makes him so great but it can also be a handicap at times when things aren’t going his way and he tries to force things so he needs some help from elsewhere.
He is a brilliant fly half but when it isn’t his day the ‘Plan B’ of Cipriani being constantly in motion, attacking the gain line and creating space for others outside him, whilst also being able to use the kicking game and marshall his troops, would give England the added dimension they’re missing.
It’ll fall on deaf ears once more but Eddie really does need to swallow his pride and get Cipriani back in the squad. In his absence, Ford should have been trusted to come on earlier but he wasn’t and it was a similar story against Wales when Jones didn’t have the confidence in Ford to bring him on at all.
At the moment it seems that Ford is only there as a safety blanket in case Farrell gets injured rather than an asset to be used off the bench if a game needs changing.
Saturday was the last competitive game before the World Cup and, whilst there is still time to improve any mental weaknesses, the timing of Jones’ comments after the game about having someone lined up to come in and work on the psychological side of things has to be questioned.
It seems very reactive and maybe even a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted when it could have happened sooner.
It’s a horrible cliché but it was a classic game of two halves on Saturday and Scotland deserve a huge amount of credit for their record comeback. They were every bit as good in the second half as they were bad in the first and were a joy to watch at times, unless you’re English.
The title wasn’t on the line at Twickenham, which probably affected the game, as that had already been wrapped up in Cardiff and Wales have been deserved winners of this tournament with a defence that has been incredible.
They might not have played too much free-flowing rugby but people don’t remember how you won a World Cup, just that you won it. They’re now major contenders for the biggest prize of all come September. England could be but they need a ‘Plan B’. Over to you Eddie.
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