It is fair to say there were plenty of raised eyebrows when Eddie Jones announced his England team to play Australia, as in-form fly-half George Ford found himself relegated to the bench and Henry Slade, who had just 11 minutes of rugby under his belt since coming back from injury, was promoted to the starting XV.
It broke up England’s dual-playmaker – and dual-kicking threat – of Ford and Owen Farrell at the heart of the midfield, as Farrell moved inside to 10 and Manu Tuilagi also shuffled along the line, coming in from outside centre to inside centre. For a team that had kicked from hand more than any other side at the Rugby World Cup, the move was an interesting one.
Despite registering a morale-boosting 40-16 victory, a typically prickly Jones was still in bullish form over the selection at the post-match press conference. When asked if the ‘dropping’ of Ford was vindicated by the result and performance, Jones replied that Ford had not been benched or dropped, simply that his role had been changed for the contest and that rugby is now a 23-man game. It was a more than fair point from the Australian and though we can all debate the terminology, the performance clearly was a vindication of the coach’s decision.
Having averaged 29 kicks from hand per game in their first three games of the Rugby World Cup, they recorded just 20 against Australia in Oita on Saturday. With the Wallabies bossing possession and territory in the game, enjoying 64% and 62% respectively, England’s defensively shored up midfield had to deal with 13 carries from powerhouse Samu Kerevi and deal with him they did.
The Queensland Red had run riot through defences throughout the pool stage, however against England he was marshalled. He had gain-line success and did break a number of tackles, though not with the proclivity that he revelled in against other teams earlier in the competition. Both Farrell and Tuilagi held up well to his physicality and frequently one of the Mordor Two, Sam Underhill or Tom Curry, was on hand to help.
Curry and Underhill. pic.twitter.com/n4FpExQqzJ
In fact, where Australia had more joy was with Jordan Petaia at outside centre, with the 19-year-old regularly able to find space outside of Slade and punish any sort of disconnect in England’s defensive line. He was contained then at the second level of the defence and for the most part, Jones’ move to bolster the inside of his midfield defensively was richly rewarded on Saturday.
When Ford arrived in the second half for Slade, and England reverted to their previously seen combination of Ford-Farrell-Tuilagi, the Leicester Tigers playmaker was able to bring some extra control and find space in the backfield with his cultured boot. Soak up pressure, nullify the dangerman and then exploit a tired team. Jones’ plan worked to perfection.
The other two selections which were under the microscope were those of Mako Vunipola, who was returning from injury, and Courtney Lawes, who was replacing George Kruis, a man whose chemistry with Maro Itoje and Jamie George is beyond question at this point.
After coming under pressure at the first couple of scrums, Vunipola rebounded and repaid all faith that Jones had in him. The set-piece then evened out – before England took control later in the game – and the loosehead put in an incredible shift in the loose, particularly when you take into account the lack of top-level rugby he has had in recent months. He combined with Underhill to make a game-high 20 tackles, although his impact went beyond that figure, with a number of dominant tackles and precise clear-outs that provided England with quick and clean ball.
Similarly, Lawes excelled on the defensive side of the ball as Australia dominated possession, particularly in the first half. The Northampton Saints lock delivered a masterclass of tackling on a number of Australia’s power carriers, stopping them dead in their tracks. He was also efficient in his technique, frequently leading the defensive line and going low and chopping down Wallabies, rather than risk missing or being penalised on a higher hit.
Neither Lawes nor Vunipola had the attacking influence that both players are capable of, but they did the job that was asked of them with aplomb. They took the life out of the legs of the Australian pack and their energy, along with that of the flank pairing and Itoje, was perfectly suited to chasing down and containing the eager-to-run Wallabies.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 19, 2019
And then we come to that flank pairing. It may not have been a selection which was questioned, such have been their performances alongside one another over the last couple of months, but this game was a huge test for Curry and Underhill, as they went up against two of the very best flankers in the world in Michael Hooper and David Pocock, players who have become masters of their craft.
Impossible to completely contain, Pocock had one or two moments of fetching brilliance, though the physicality and mobility that England’s flanks brought was impressive throughout their time on the pitch. They were part of that all-energy English defensive performance in the first 50 minutes that nullified Australia, as well as interspersing their tackling and contact area work with a couple of moments of class, such as Curry’s draw and give for Jonny May’s first try and Underhill’s athletic aerial take when under pressure from multiple gold-cladded jumpers.
Whether you love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Jones got his tactics and approach to the game with the Wallabies spot on. His selections countered Australia’s strengths and though it was far from the most ‘flashy’ of English attacking performances, it was ruthlessly clinical, the one thing which you could have argued England were missing in their admittedly one-sided wins over Tonga, USA and Argentina.
Continue reading below…
Watch: Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell face the press in Oita after qualifying for the semi-finals
A new challenge looms on the horizon, though, and it is one which looks to be a perilous one.
As good as England’s performance against Australia was, the All Blacks blew it out of the water with their 46-14 dismantling of Ireland. It was not an outing befitting of Joe Schmidt’s last game in charge of the northern hemisphere side, as Ireland struggled to generate any sort of continuity in possession, but it was also a masterclass all-round performance from New Zealand.
The question now is what aces, if any, does Jones have up his sleeve for the unique challenge that New Zealand will pose? They will undoubtedly go hard at England early, just as Australia did, but they are unlikely to punch themselves out in the same fashion. If England opt to try and weather that early storm, rather than attempting to force their own style of play on the game, they risk giving the All Blacks an unassailable lead. New Zealand will, almost without a shadow of doubt, prove to be more clinical in attack than Australia were.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 20, 2019
Jones could return to his combination of Ben Youngs, Ford and Farrell and attempt to control field position and make sure that if the All Blacks are going to get over the try line, they’ll have to go that bit further to get there. It also returns Tuilagi to perhaps his most potent offensive position on the pitch at outside centre, a man that New Zealand are very wary of and will pay particular attention to.
Or he can continue as he did against Australia, with that threat of Ford – and the subsequent change in style – available off the bench if needed. He may not pack quite the punch that Kerevi does, but Anton Lienert-Brown is no lightweight carrier in that 12 channel and Farrell and Tuilagi have shown their value as a defensive pairing. If that combination is retained, Jonathan Joseph offers an intriguing variable, with his lateral mobility and defensive nous welcome in the 13 jersey, a position where Petaia exploited England on a number of occasions.
Regardless, these are the decisions that make or break coaches and although the All Blacks represent arguably the best team in world rugby at the moment, this is a scenario that Jones would have bitten your hand off for had it been offered to him prior to the Rugby World Cup. It’s the biggest game that Jones has coached since the 2003 Rugby World Cup final and the biggest England have been involved in since the 2007 final.
Whatever happens on Saturday in Yokohama, Jones will want to ensure his team come off the pitch not wondering about what could have been and confident that they fired all the shots they possibly could have.
Joe Cokanasiga in the 23, anyone?
Watch: Michael Cheika and Michael Hooper face the press after Australia’s quarter-final loss to England
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.