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Four England takeaways, including case for a Smith/Farrell break up

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Steve Bardens/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Saturday was grim for England as the curtain fell on the Autumn Nations Series with a damaging thud, the comprehensive defeat to the Springboks leaving Eddie Jones with just a single win for four games this month and only five wins in a dozen outings for 2022. Here are four RugbyPass takeaways from the 13-27 defeat.

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Bulletproof Eddie ain’t a good look
Eddie Jones was on his best behaviour when it came to explaining the latest damaging England setback, even politely apologising after he prematurely began answering one query before the question had been finished. It’s perhaps the difference that looking into the white of eyes makes as just 20 months ago he was calling out ‘media rat poison’ at a time when his briefings were confined to virtual engagement.

Thing is, he looked way too comfortable on Saturday night for a coach whose results have gone to pot and where one step forward seems to be too quickly followed by two or more steps back. The ship has sailed on the RFU potentially sacking him before France 2023, so he knows he is bulletproof for another ten months.

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However, whatever the media currently thinks of his efforts (and we generally rate him very poorly as someone who hasn’t evolved his tactics despite all his palaver), he can’t be oblivious to the verdict of the Twickenham crowd. The RFU have raked in approximately £20million in ticket sales these last four weekends and for the fans to resoundingly boo at full-time was a powerful statement.

They won’t vote ever with their feet; the demand for tickets at Twickenham will always outstrip supply no matter how poor the results and no matter how much the RFU keep bumping up the prices. But supporters giving their team a filthy spray isn’t ever a good look and Jones’ England legacy is in danger of being left in tatters.

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The mirage of change
A major frustration of the current England is that as much as Jones suggests his team is changing, the more it stubbornly stay generally the same. Nine of the same starters beaten up by the Springboks in Yokohama three years ago were in the starting XV here with the same brutal outcome unfolding, leaving you bemused as to where the actual progress has been these past 36 months.

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Adding to the sameness was how the Saracens selection dominance has been re-established. It was last year when Jones sent the Vunipola brothers packing along with Jamie George, yet there were all included at the weekend, part of an eclipsed England pack that also included Maro Itoje.

Saracens may be setting an impressive pace at the top of the Gallagher Premiership but England having four of the starting pack hailing from the same club wasn’t a good way of trying to illustrate that things have evolved at Test level. They haven’t.

Just look at their set-piece issues, weaknesses from the 2019 World Cup final that again materialised even though the then South Africa scrum coach, Matt Proudfoot, is now on Jones’ staff. If that’s progress we just can’t see it.

Biting Smith/Farrell bullet
The big England debate this winter should be whether Jones bites the bullet and brings an end to his experiment of pairing Marcus Smith with Owen Farrell in a 10/12 axis. Injuries to Farrell last term meant it didn’t become a thing until the July Australian tour and the pair have now started another four matches together.

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There were signs in game two versus Japan that they could complement each other as they shifted in and out of the two channels rather than rigidly staying put and it provided some encouraging variation, but it didn’t gel in the other three games.

Even the eight-minute comeback against the All Blacks can be put down to Smith abandoning the restricted England script and playing with the off-the-cuff vibrancy that he showcases across the road when playing for Harlequins.

Forget the captaincy, something that Farrell struggled with in recent weeks given his lack of rapport with referees. For the good of England, Jones needs to look at Smith and Farrell as competing for the same No10 jersey and free up the midfield selection.

Farrell with Tuilagi didn’t inspire at the moment as a centre partnership, so it is high time for a rethink now rather than walking into the World Cup blindly sticking by the Smith/Farrell 10/12 combo. The issue of the Farrell captaincy shouldn’t be a hurdle to breaking that duo up and trying something different.

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Springboks then and now
Two England games versus the Springboks, two very different results twelve months apart. Jones made soundings post-game about the visitors’ domination of both possession and territory but the reality on checking the stats was that there was no major difference from a year ago when England won a thriller 27-26 (48 per cent possession and 47 per cent territory compared with 46 and 48 per cent respectively last November).

What really let England down when it came to numbers was their handling. There were just four bad passes and three knock-ons in their one-point win, but their 14-point defeat was pockmarked by 14 bad passes and seven knocks – a wounding lack of precision.

Fans will, of course, point to Saturday’s scrum where the penalty count was four-one against England but the tally was three-two in November 2021, so Jones’ front row conceding one additional penalty on this occasion was no major change-up, it’s just they coped better last time out against the Boks.

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