There were suspicions going into England’s opening match of the year that a contingent of their players wouldn’t be ready for the intensity of the Six Nations. That fear came to fruition on Saturday when Scotland scored a first win at Twickenham in almost 40 years.
The players in question, of course, were the side’s five Saracens, who’ve experienced a dearth of rugby thanks to the team’s demotion to England’s Championship club competition.
The RFU Championship is yet to kick off this year due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which means that Saracens, who were relegated following a salary cup breach, have played just a solitary competitive game in 2021 – against Ealing Trailfinders.
Billy Vunipola was the only England international to feature in that match, however. Vunipola’s Saracens teammates, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje, meanwhile, have not played since the Autumn Nations Cup final in December last year – and it showed in the Calcutta Cup battle on Saturday.
While Itoje was his normal industrious self, causing havoc at the breakdowns and giving Scotland halfback Ali Price a particularly difficult time at the back of the ruck, Farrell and Daly failed to set the backline alight while George was out of sync with his lineout jumpers at crucial moments throughout the match.
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England coach Eddie Jones chalked up Farrell and Daly’s misery to the side’s lack of possession, which sat at just 35 per cent for the match.
“The first half was had 25 per cent possession, I haven’t seen the second half stats but I don’t think it would be much higher than that,” Jones said following the game. “We had no ball so when you’re playing 10 with no ball it’s difficult.”
Even when the likes of Farrell and Daly did have clean ball, however, they struggled to help their team get on the front foot.
Stats obviously don’t tell the full picture, but Farrell actually had the ball in his hands more than his opposite, Finn Russell, but England’s midfield and wings combined for just 12 runs throughout the game, illustrating how rarely the ball was spread amongst the three-quarters.
Ex-Scotland coach Matt Williams was quick to put the boot into the Saracens contingent, suggesting the five “weren’t at the races”.
Itoje, with a mark of 6 out of 10, was the best of the lot according to the RugbyPass player ratings for the game, while Farrell and Vunipola were handed scores of 5.
Fans on social media were also critical of the five Saracens players, suggesting that the group looked especially rusty – which is hardly surprising, given their lack of game time this year.
— Hugh Terry (@Hugorelly) February 6, 2021
— Patrick Lewis (@PatrickLewis123) February 6, 2021
This is the worst England performance I’ve seen under Eddie Jones. No clear game plan, key Saracens players exceptionally rusty and a ridiculous penalty count. Borderline embarrassing for a team claiming they want to be the best in the world. Big problems need solving. #ENGvSCO
— Theo Livesey (@LiveseyTheo) February 6, 2021
— Martin Jones (@beakym) February 6, 2021
— Richard Hollis (@UsedCarHead) February 6, 2021
Eddie, some advice! Picking those bunch of rusty Saracens players will cost you your job. You have been warned. #ENGvSCO
— Braai teacher (@BraaiKing_Bad) February 6, 2021
Honestly, despite Scotland playing well, we have been so poor! The Saracens players look rusty, Farrell just keeps kicking it away when we finally get possession! Flat and no ideas! #ENGvSCO
— Matt Farr (@BadgerFarr) February 6, 2021
Many argued the loss was a direct result of Jones’ selections and that the likes of Farrell and George shouldn’t have been picked to play in the first place.
One even suggested that, on form, captain Farrell wasn’t one of the best eight English flyhalves at present.
#ENGvSCO Owen Farrell not in the top 8 England fly halves at the moment. Rusty as hell.
— IainB (@idhb77) February 6, 2021
While there’s obviously some subjectivity to the matter, the likes of Joe Simmonds (Exeter), Marcus Smith (Harlequins) and Jacob Umaga (Wasps) have shown moments of brilliance for their Premiership clubs this year while George Ford (Leicester) has struggled in an off-form Leicester team – but is at least playing rugby week-in and week-out.
The expectation is that the Saracens players will improve as the Six Nations progresses, but England’s premier annual international competition is hardly the place for players to find form.
Despite the sorry showing, Jones will likely keep changes to a minimum for next week’s clash with Italy, especially given the latter’s limp showing against France in the opening match of this year’s competition.
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