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The three fixable factors behind Eddie Jones' England stagnation

Eddie Jones' England weren't far away from making the grade.

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Loose lips sink ships and maybe England

By Adam Julian
Ruby Tui and the Black Ferns look on with concern following a French try. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

The Black Ferns last press conference before the World Cup final was loose. It swung from Put?ruru to ?kato to the West Coast and included discussions about Celine Dion, Marvel Movies, and reverse drop goals by prop Krystal Murray.

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Ruby Tui was at her freewheeling best while veterans Kendra Cocksedge and Black Ferns Director of Rugby Wayne Smith were lucid and relaxed.

Was the humour a deflection away from the serious proposition of toppling England?  Not likely. It was in tune with the Black Ferns engaging and entertaining ‘vibe’ throughout the tournament.

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Statistics paint a stark picture however and suggest the Red Roses should prevail. Winners of a world record 30 consecutive Tests, England boast a combined 1123 Test caps compared with the Black Ferns 409. Inspirational captain Sarah Hunter debuted in 2007 and has played more Tests than the entire Black Ferns pack. A host nation has never won the World Cup and England beat the hosts twice last year 43-12 and 56-15.

It’s true the Black Ferns lead the head to head count 18-11, and that includes World Cup final wins in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2017. They are a faultless 10-0 at Eden Park.

Contemporary England have shown though they can shut out games, run opposition ragged or simply stuff them in the forwards with structured, clinical, uncompromising execution, coupled with precise territorial kicking. Coach Simon Middleton remarked:

“With success comes scrutiny and the inevitable pressure that brings with it. This squad has stood up to all of that and more and that is testimony to their ability, resilience, and unwavering belief in each other. When things get tough, this team knows how to get going, that is why we are relishing Saturday and all that it will bring.”

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Asked if the sold out crowd at Eden Park would be intimidating for his side he replied: “It will be more intimidating for them. To lose in front of your home crowd is a tough gig. So, the pressure on them is absolutely massive.”

With a wry smile Smith refuted that statement a couple of hours later by saying, “Look, I’ve been coaching for 36 years, he’s just a newcomer – he’s trying to put pressure on an old fella.”

England will pressure the forwards. That we know. Their lineout is brutally efficient, winning double the number of lineouts the Black Ferns have while poaching 16 steals from the opposition and scoring a bundle of tries. Hooker Amy Cokayne scored a hat-trick against the Black Ferns last year from mauls while locks Zoe Aldcroft and Abbie Ward have been exceptional.

The Red Roses discipline is marginally better conceding 42 penalties compared to the Black Ferns 51. The back row of Alex Matthews, Marlie Packer and Hunter are disruptive and precise at the breakdown, an area where France had a significant edge for long periods in the semi-final against the Black Ferns.

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The Black Ferns have been forced to make one change to their loose forward trio with Liana Mikaele Tu’u ruled out with a thumb injury. That opens the door for Charmaine McMenamin to start. Joanah Ngan-Woo, a perfectly capable loose forward, is surprisingly overlooked for the starting XV again.

It’s a testament to McMenamin’s courage that she is playing the tournament at all after an arduous battle with injury, but hasn’t she been a little underwhelming? Furthermore, the continued benching of co-captain Kennedy Simon suggests she is not yet fit enough to last a full 80 minutes.

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Enough pessimism. How will the Black Ferns win the game? The way New Zealand teams always have through heart and ingenuity.

Obviously, their forwards must front and there were some bright moments against France last Saturday. Under siege in the first quarter, the defence resisted bravely and only conceded a solitary try.

Later a memorable scrum penalty was won. Before the Theresa Fitzpatrick try, a 15-metre rolling maul helped create momentum. There was a notable improvement in the ruck tussle as the game evolved.

The Black Ferns are at their best when the game is moving at a quick pace and is unscripted. This is what Smith calls “our DNA.” Against France there were long periods of confined pressure. Shortly after halftime, Ruby Tui scored an unlikely try, and the Black Ferns soon had 15 unanswered points in a flash.

Subdued on the bleak Northern Tour in 2021, Ruahei Demant has captained her country to ten consecutive victories. She has made a tournament leading 12 offload and commented following her Mastercard Player of the Match award in the 56-12 romp of Wales in Wait?kere.

“I’m always looking for the space and we have so many genuine threats and options and we play to our strengths and know each other’s strengths. It’s amazing to be able to trust the players on my outside and have clear specific communication and getting lightning quick ball from rucks and good delivery from my half-backs gives us such a good platform to attack off.”

If the tempo is swift and the flow unpredictable England could crumble when subjected to chaos they haven’t seen since the 2017 final.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

The Black Ferns will push that pass or ignore a kick when it appears the more sensible option. High risk, high reward. Will England be as daring if their hand is forced? Sure, Abby Dow scored an absolute classic try against Canada six days ago but otherwise England was cautiously calculated or retreating into defence.

It might sound smug but if you asked the average New Zealander on the street to name more than three Red Roses they’d struggle. Kiwis have been spoiled when it comes to rugby success for a long time. For England to be truly respected among average rugby punters in this country they need to win and win well. Do that and they could be recognised in the same breath as names like Wilkinson or Gregan or afforded similar plaudits to the Irish men recently.

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