In the process of putting 57 points on Italy at Twickenham on Saturday, England not only breathed life into their Guinness Six Nations title ambitions going into the final round, they also found themselves three big ‘wins’ ahead of the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
It was an emphatic performance from the hosts and were it not for a knock-on, an errant pass and a forward pass in the opening 25 minutes, England would have had a further three tries to add to their tally. There will be frustrations over those small errors and losses of composure, but on the whole it was a smooth-running and efficient performance.
It is unfortunate for England that Italy didn’t pose a larger threat at Twickenham and push them harder, but that is due as much to the power and precision of England as it was to Italy’s inability to compete at the same intensity and level of the hosts.
Even with that disparity on the pitch, there were three clear winners for England, as the group took another step forward in their 2019 Rugby World Cup development.
He wrought havoc in the opening minutes down the right wing, marauding through the Italian defence, and was unlucky not to set up Tom Curry for an early try, when the openside spilled Cokanasiga’s deft offload out of the back of the hand. Fast-forward slightly later in the first half and another break from Cokanasiga unleashed a supporting Ben Youngs, but the scrum-half couldn’t finish the move before the cover defence arrived.
The wing’s patience and creative hard work was rewarded in the second half, however, when he latched onto an Elliot Daly counter-attack and powered down the touchline, before finding Dan Robson on the inside and the replacement was able to shoot over for his first international try.
His work rate didn’t end in with his carrying and creation of opportunities, though, with the 21-year-old harassing Italy’s back three in the aerial contest and he was, on multiple occasions, able to win the ball back for England. He had showed this previously against Japan and Australia, but this was another big tick in his favour, in what has quickly become one of, if not the most competitive position battle in the England team. If he can, as he did at Twickenham on Saturday, match the work rate of Jack Nowell and Chris Ashton in the chase, he has a physical presence which makes him more impactful in that aerial contest. That could prove decisive when Jones is divvying up spots on the plane to Japan.
In addition to those attributes, he simply showed his x factor, too. He is a big-play winger, carving up unsuspecting defences by coming in-field and running from the blindside of the fly-half, whilst his ability to offload is unmatched in the England squad. That proclivity to keep phases alive and stretch defences was on show Saturday and was paramount to England enjoying the space that they did.
The second big winner of the contest was Ellis Genge.
The Leicester Tigers loosehead looked as comfortable as you could have expected, being inserted into a pack that is getting closer and closer to picking itself ahead of the Rugby World Cup. He delivered with his core responsibilities at the scrum, working over Simone Ferrari on one side of the set-piece as Kyle Sinckler did likewise on the other side against Andrea Lovotti, as well as contributing to a lineout which was flawless against the most predatory defensive jumper in the Six Nations in Braam Steyn.
Beyond the core responsibilities, his reading of the game was excellent. Whether it was timing his runs to take the ball at a canter or identifying blitzing opportunities in the defensive line, his decision-making was spot on at Twickenham. He brought impact on the gain-line and was quick to capitalise on that, able to own the space and dominate physically at the contact area as a result of the power and technique of his tackling.
There is no point avoiding the elephant in the room that is Mako Vunipola, however. The Saracens loosehead, if fit, is going to occupy England’s one jersey, but this was the kind of performance, as a validation of what Genge can do at international level, that could separate him from the chasing pack of Ben Moon, Alec Hepburn and a potentially late-season surging Beno Obano. The impact he brings from the bench was obvious, but Saturday – his first Six Nations start – was an endorsement of what he can bring to the table as a starter, something Jones will have to be fairly sure of if he is to take him to the Rugby World Cup and rely on him in the rotation and as a potential depth chart topper, should Vunipola go down with injury.
The third and final notable winner was Manu Tuilagi.
The 27-year-old wasn’t exactly in need of a ‘win’, having solidly impressed at 12 over the last few rounds of competition, but at 13, the position in which he tormented so many teams in his early years with England, the Leicester centre’s value to England exploded. How many centres does Jones have who are experienced international operators in both positions, capable of shifting between the two and dramatically altering England’s style of play? The answer is probably one.
Whether a direct running threat outside of Owen Farrell, creating space for the fly-half and Henry Slade or Jonathan Joseph in the next phase, or an out-to-in runner capable of floating between the dual playmaking threats of Farrell and Slade at 10-12, he is player that defences will be keyed into and predisposed with stopping. Even if they can track him and get multiple defenders to the point where he hits his line, that’s still no guarantee they will be able to stop him, as Tuilagi demonstrated on Saturday when he powered through Angelo Esposito and then fended off Michele Campagnaro, before running in a try from over 40m out.
It was plays like that one which originally made Tuilagi the international star that he was. To see him do that again, after all the injuries that have plagued him over the last four or five years, was a warming sight to even the most begrudging of non-English rugby fans. If fit, his place in the Rugby World Cup squad was likely beyond debate before the game against Italy, but it was a potent reminder of his flexibility to play the two positions and the game-breaking ability he can bring to England’s midfield.
The trio weren’t the only impressive performers at Twickenham, with George Kruis, Jamie George, Billy Vunipola and Daly among the others to put in noteworthy showings, but all four were likely safe in their spots prior to the contest. Brad Shields looked more comfortable, Robson showed good impact off the bench and Sinckler is going from strength to strength.
It wasn’t all positive, however, and there are still areas where England will be pondering their best combinations.
After having defended so effectively against Ireland, France and Wales, England looked narrow in defence against Italy, something which had been prominent in the autumn. For all the value Ben Te’o brings as a physical presence outside the fly-half and his mobility and decision-making in a blitzing defence, his lateral mobility can see Jones’ side defend narrowly. On a couple of occasions, Tuilagi was caught tight, staying closer to the ruck and connected to Te’o, which allowed Italy to turn the corner with relative ease. On Saturday, the offensive output made it more than worthwhile, but would it be the same against a side such as New Zealand or Ireland? It is something up for debate.
Youngs has shown his value for England repeatedly but if the Leicester scrum-half goes down with injury a week before the Rugby World Cup, who does Jones turn to? It was a nice cameo from Robson, without any knowledge of how he would go as a starter, Danny Care has seemingly been cut adrift and Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Spencer are options that have come in and out during the Australian’s tenure as head coach. There are contingency options at most positions in the England squad, but scrum-half remains one of the bigger mysteries, with games beginning to run out before the squad jets out to Japan.
The positives, however, far outweighed the negatives in an emphatic victory in the penultimate round of the competition.
The attention now turns to Scotland at Twickenham in six days’ time and there is an opportunity for all three of these ‘winners’ to re-emphasise the cases they put forward on Saturday against an opponent that, based on this Six Nations, is a step up in quality from Italy.
Cokanasiga’s defensive duties should get a sterner test from the likes of Blair Kinghorn and an in-form Darcy Graham, Genge would have to deal with one of the best scrummaging tightheads around in WP Nel and Tuilagi gets another opportunity to showcase his versatility, either outside of Te’o, inside of Slade or, perhaps, outside of the Exeter man.
No one is predicting a similar 43-point deficit in the Calcutta Cup, but if this trio can replicate their level of performance against the Scots, they will have gone a long way toward achieving their Rugby World Cup ambitions later this year, whether that be a role as a starter, a rotational option or a squad member.
Watch: The Rugby Pod discuss the mooted Nations Championship
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