England’s fall from grace is an incredibly interesting case study. It’s difficult to believe that only a year ago they were on such a high, having claimed the Six Nations and won 24 of 25 Test matches.
England have since slumped to six successive defeats and are playing like a team that has completely lost their confidence. The players are making a plethora of basic errors – slipping tackles, kicking and passing poorly and over-running – which is symptomatic of a side that is very low on self-confidence.
Seeing if he can turn this team around will be the single biggest challenge of Eddie Jones’ coaching career to date. A run of defeats happen to all coaches because the margins within top-level sport are so slender. Eddie is aware of that because he is an experienced mentor. We all have knowledge but implementation is ultimately the trick. A professional coach can essentially create change within a team in two ways. The first by means of selection and the second through the plan. Eddie has been very good in resisting making wholesale changes up until now. As coaches, we know continuity is often the solution and, when you lose a match or two, you must avoid making wholesale changes. But, when you have lost six in a row, you have to make changes to try and arrest the downturn in results. The message emanating from the English set-up is: “We must take responsibility and try harder.” However, when in a rut, the irony is the harder you try, the more things seem to go wrong.
Jones needs to change a central part of his team and engender belief that Owen Farrell at fly-half can win games for England, not necessarily against South Africa on Saturday but, going forward. The criticism directed towards Farrell is unfair because he is an amazing player. In terms of the captaincy, Farrell is a natural leader but is struggling to cope with the added responsibility. Jones should let him lead, as he does with Saracens, without being skipper. George Ford at fly-half is not the answer. The England team doesn’t even know it yet but they don’t harbour the same belief in him they once did.
In terms of game plan, England need to simplify what they are doing. I believe they must become more conservative in order to regain their confidence. England have become too expansive in terms of style and they are making so many errors at the moment, as they are a team bereft of confidence.
Conversely, when you are playing well and riding the wave of momentum, it’s easy to chuck the ball around. Passes stick and players don’t over-run. To offer a golfing analogy, England need to use a 3-wood off the tee to get back in play or hit with a hybrid to stay on the fairway. The bottom line is that England aren’t in play at the minute, as they are making too many errors. However, Eddie is smart enough not to have turned on his players. I guarantee you he hasn’t been on their cases and definitely hasn’t screamed and shouted at them. He is too wily a coach for that out-dated approach.
With regard to the dressing room, it’s not that the players aren’t responding to Jones. All the noise coming out of the England camp this week tells me that it’s neither a culture problem nor are the players proving unresponsive. Eddie isn’t cross with the players and the players aren’t cross with him. The crux of the matter is that England need their luck to turn. Nine times out of ten, Elliot Daly would have gathered the grubber kick from which S’bu Nkosi scored and Brad Shields wouldn’t have had the ball dislodged from his grasp over the try-line. As a coach, there is no way you can legislate for those moments and, when you are in a losing spiral, everything that can go wrong usually does.
As far as the Springboks are concerned, Rassie Erasmus has the luxury of trying some new players and combinations in Cape Town but, if I was him, I wouldn’t mess with team selection too much because confidence is a precious commodity. When a team has been together for 18 months and isn’t brittle, it’s a valid option. However, it’s a risk chopping and changing after two Tests together. If England sneak the win at Newlands, the hosts would have let Jones and England off the hook. If South Africa lose the third Test, and with it the momentum, it brings England back into play. The Boks need to display their ruthless streak by killing England off and securing a 3-nil series whitewash.
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