From soundbites to rookies... four pressing England tour issues
It’s daft how these World Rugby tour schedules create yawning gaps in between particular types of fixtures. Not since 2012 have Ireland played the All Blacks in New Zealand, it’s 2014 since Wales were in South Africa, while you have to go back six years to find the last time England played on tour in Australia.
When you bare in mind how often the southern hemisphere big-hitters get to regularly play away to the northern hemisphere’s biggest teams (the All Blacks have been in Dublin four times since last hosting the Irish, the Springboks in Cardiff five times and the Wallabies in London four times), there is a brutal imbalance in the list of games that needs addressing.
Of course, we acknowledge there is quite a difference between jumping around the various European rugby hotspots compared to the more exhaustive travel involved in getting from one county to another in the southern hemisphere.
However, it can’t be right that All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies get more frequently exposed on their travels to all these northern hemisphere venues and generally have a more robust and varied experience compared to the considerable gaps the Irish, Welsh and the English put up with when it comes to their exposure on the other side of the equator.
For England, this wait means they have arrived in Perth trying to rekindle the vibe of 2016, the trip when they walloped the Wallabies to the tune of a 3-0 series sweep to complement their Six Nations Grand Slam triumph a few months earlier.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) June 22, 2022
The dynamic surrounding them on this Oz return six years later is very different, however. Consecutive poor championships (four wins in ten games), numerous underwhelming performances and a coach whose credits are running low due to selection inconsistency and high staff turnover sees them with backs firmly to the wall for the series that will unfold over three successive Saturdays in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. Here, RugbyPass pinpoints some of the pertinent England issues to look out for in the coming weeks:
End the silly soundbites
Jones is a cabaret, the most quotable coach on the Test rugby circuit, but the fear is his credibility has sagged and he is in danger of becoming a laughing stock if England flunk on this tour. His array of colourful soundbites have made for good copy over the years since he first took charge in 2016 but the issue when you don’t have the good results to help walk the talk is that what he has said of late has largely come across as balderdash.
So much of what was uttered during England’s latest Six Nations car crash campaign left him looking silly and that gibberish continued last weekend with his extraordinary take on the whipping sustained at home against a 14-man Barbarians that had only met the previous Monday and had enjoyed a booze-fuelled week. How England disintegrated reflected terribly on Jones’ coaching.
Since October 2020 his media engagements have been done virtually, the pandemic restricting his briefings to online activity, but that red tape lifted in the lead-up to this tour and he will now encounter the whites of the prying media eyes in person the whole way through the Australian excursion. Expect fireworks if the Ws don’t materialise.
The rookie attrition rate
England have travelled with ten veterans from the 2016 Australian tour – Danny Care, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Owen Farrell, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Jack Nowell, Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola – and their presence in the 36-strong squad will be vital if the trip is to be a success.
They are sure to bring their particular individual brands of tricks, with the focus especially immense on the recalled Care and Billy Vunipola, but the jury is out on what value there is in having eight uncapped players – Fraser Dingwall, Tommy Freeman, Guy Porter, Patrick Schickerling, Jack van Poortvliet and Jack Walker, along with Henry Arundell and Will Joseph as apprentices – along for the ride.
The comparison tour for this trip just over a year out from the 2023 World Cup in France is the 2018 visit by England to South Africa a little over twelve months before the 2019 World Cup finals in Japan.
The same as now, England won just two Six Nations matches leading into the tour and eight of the 35 players that made the trip were uncapped, mid-trip call-up Jack Singleton and original picks Jonny Hill, Brad Shields, Ben Earl, Dan Robson, Ben Spencer, Nathan Earle and Jason Woodward.
Their respective Test careers have been a curate’s egg, Spencer getting called up to sit on the World Cup final bench and Hill touring last year with the Lions. The lock is the only one of the eight on deck on this occasion with England, an illustration of the huge attrition rate that the eight rookies who have flown to Perth would do well to remember. Going on tour is one thing, getting consistently picked by England quite another. The pressure is certainly on.
Blunt need for Smokin’ Joe
Prior to the 2016 tour, Jones immersed his England squad in the black-and-white footage from the 1932/33 cricket tour to Australia, the infamous Bodyline series. The message was that if you played physically and aggressively and unsettled the Aussies, you would defy the odds and this was what happened as England won all three games.
The recall for Billy Vunipola to the squad for the first time since the March 2021 pasting in Ireland had rekindled those Bodyline analogies, the No8 poised to be the battering ram go-forward with Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds both laid up at home. Thing is, despite being back on form at Saracens, the back-rower isn’t the type of player to put pre-match fear into the Wallabies and this matters as the fear factor is something that England have been lacking for quite some time.
Take the most recent match versus Ireland, the Twickenham hammering last March. The legendary Brian O’Driscoll spoke about how the Irish loved hearing that midfielder Joe Marchant was in the mix to be picked on the wing rather than someone like Adam Radwan, an out-and-out speedster whose pace would have planted a seed of doubt and had opposition wingers on edge (Marchant was eventually named at No13, with Max Malins and Nowell as wingers).
This ability to frighten the opposition is something that the powerful Joe Cokanasiga possesses and with England struggling for tries, it’s imperative that they find a fresh cutting edge and start making it count as new attack coach Martin Gleeson is having major trouble bringing his ideas to fruition.
Although just 24, Smokin’ Joe has been around for ages. He debuted in November 2018 but his Test career has been blighted by injury which is why he stepped off the plane in Perth with just eleven caps. He has eleven tries, though, and while it will be pointed out that a good chunk came in less important games and against less daunting opponents, he really needs to kick on and demonstrate he has the durability for the big occasion. Blunt England badly need him to deliver.
Unfudging the captaincy
Clive Woodward didn’t hold back in unleashing his latest verbal volley in midweek, slamming the state of the England squad that Jones had flown to Australia with. “No one knows what the best England team is and this seeps into the players’ mindset. England have gone from close to the top of the world in Japan 2019 to, at best, a workmanlike team that few currently respect. Starters, finishers, apprentices – we cannot even name a captain until we get to Australia!”
He has a point. England management place such a massive emphasis on clarity of thought, yet their selections generate plenty of muddle. It was early November when Jones championed a fresh leadership set-up, Genge, Lawes and Tom Curry getting officially named as vice-captains to assist skipper Farrell.
Isolation and then injury scuppered that plan, Farrell playing just one of the eight England Tests this season, and with the next-in-line captain Lawes also missing the start of the Six Nations, it resulted in Cowan-Dickie stepping up to be a vice under new skipper Curry before Lawes returned.
Injury is no one’s fault but the absence of Farrell over the year created many questions about the importance to England – good or bad – of his captaincy, queries that were again inflamed when Jones named his squad last Monday and included the Saracens skipper without placing ‘Capt’ alongside his name now that he is fit and back in the party.
It’s a lack of clarity that must be nipped in the bud as it just feeds into the uncertainty in players’ mindset. Either Farrell is still the main man that England trusts for the long-term and they come out and say so in Australia or else the duty must this week go to Lawes, letting him use the tour to further learn the ropes so that he is best ready to lead England at the 2023 World Cup. Hedging bets from one game to the next in Australia simply won’t serve Jones well in a climate where the knives are out for him.
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