After an impressive performance in Dublin stretched Ireland’s lead at the top of the Six Nations table to 10 points, England needed to show something in Paris.
Full credit should go to France, who defended exceptionally for 80 minutes, but there was a one-dimensional nature to England that, combined with the fatigue that they are showing in the aftermath of a British and Irish Lions tour, has left them looking like a blunt weapon this year.
Last week, I talked about England looking flat and needing ‘something’.
An injection of enthusiasm and energy into a side struggling with fatigue, a missing Billy Vunipola and increasing opposition awareness of how to hurt them, with current and former apprentices Marcus Smith and Zach Mercer hungry to make an impression and ready to step up.
That hasn’t changed in the two weeks since.
Jamie George was brought in for an injured Dylan Hartley, but George hasn’t been in the blistering form that had us all calling for his inclusion over the last two years. He has certainly earned the opportunity, but he is another playing coming off an extremely demanding 18 months and looks to be just missing that edge to his play that had seen him counted amongst the best in the world in recent seasons.
If this is to truly be his England audition, it’s a cruel time for it to be afforded to him.
Elliot Daly’s return to the team was positive, with both his one-touch offload to Jonny May for a try and his long-range penalty giving England much-needed attacking creativity and ways of influencing the game. Notably, he has come off a lengthy injury and one which has allowed him some recuperation time.
Kyle Sinckler, another player who has recently had an ‘enforced sabbatical’ through suspension, looked sharp and impactful off the bench, as did Joe Marler, in the brief cameo he got. James Haskell, recently sidelined by injury, presented a more powerful carrying option than second row Joe Launchbury when he was brought on, too.
With so much focus on England’s issues at the breakdown, their inability to keep on the front-foot – and in the process alleviate the reliance on contesting at the breakdown – is being overlooked, or at least not given equal attention.
England have earned the right to keep their current path and come next season, when many of their players will have enjoyed a proper offseason and will have physically and mentally recuperated from a period of non-stop rugby, they may well begin to move back up through the gears and reassert themselves as the force they were before last summer.
But then again, why waste the opportunity that lies right in front of you?
Jones is a coach who works his players hard. Everyone knows that, and it has been just what England have needed over the last two years. He has made them fitter, made them hard-nosed and made them not afraid of being self-assured in their ability to win games in a way that suits them.
However, Jones has never had to coach a team coming off a Lions tour, who must also endure the attritional nature of a northern hemisphere season. It is a unique concept that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales alone must manage and one that particularly affects England this season, with so many of their first-choice squad having headed to New Zealand last summer.
Jones talks up England’s lack of intensity and says they must work harder to put right their mistakes, but is less a case of more in this scenario?
There’s no escaping how tired and how flat England look. Usually effervescent talents like George, Launchbury, Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, Ben Te’o and Anthony Watson don’t, in England colours, currently look like the game-winners that they have been before and undoubtedly will be again.
If Jones is keen to continue pushing his players for that extra “two or three percent”, maybe now is the time to rest some of his prize stallions before they are flogged to death.
The pressure is off.
Ireland head to Twickenham this coming weekend as favourites. They have already wrapped up the Six Nations and they’re hunting what would be only the third Grand Slam in their history.
I have no doubt the desire to spoil Ireland’s party, just as the Irish did to England in Dublin last year, is strong in the likes of Vunipola and co, but the time is ripe to give players from outside of England’s – and the Lions’ – core a chance. This goes for the tour to South Africa in the summer, too.
Why keep flogging players who are going to be pivotal at the Rugby World Cup? They need a proper offseason and this is going to be the last shot they get at one before they head off to Japan next year.
The hope of seeing both Smith and Mercer given a chance next weekend is a fanciful one, but Sinckler? Marler? Luke Cowan-Dickie?
An all-new front-row isn’t going to get much traction with Jones, but at least Sinckler, who was positive off the bench in Paris, deserves a shot at starting a Test.
Amongst England’s fatigued Lions, Courtney Lawes has been bucking the trend with strong performances, not least so against France, albeit performances that many are critical of due to his position in the back-row, rather than the second-row.
Launchbury’s performances were excellent against Italy and Wales, but they have diminished as the championship has gone on. Lawes could drop back into the engine room and open a back-row spot for someone more suitable to helping solve England’s breakdown and carrying deficiencies.
Haskell certainly looked lively off the bench at the Stade de France. Sam Simmonds didn’t have the impact he would have liked after replacing Nathan Hughes early, but he has credit in the bank from the game against Italy.
How about Dave Ewers?
The Exeter forward that everyone is talking about may be Don Armand, and he wouldn’t be a bad option, either, but with Hughes looking unlikely to be fit for the visit of Ireland, why not bring in that powerhouse carrier in the tight that Jones craves?
There must be a contingency plan for an injured Billy Vunipola, anyway, and with no No 8 capable of replacing him like-for-like, England need to look at options for remodelling their entire back-row to make up for his absence. Ewers could be pivotal in that unit.
Experimentation in the midfield could be on the cards, too, with one of the most successful areas of the side over the last two years looking disjointed and ineffective, as opposition sides have begun to attack it aggressively with line-speed and committing numbers at the breakdown to slow down England’s ball.
Would Jones shelve his dual-playmaker axis to bring in an extra carrying threat?
George Ford struggled to influence the games in Edinburgh and Paris and whilst a very astute fly-half who has great value for England in the future, the time has come to move Farrell back to 10 and see if he can run the back line by himself, as he used to do for England and still does for Saracens.
Dare I say it, but could Manu Tuilagi be the spark England need?
He has quietly been knocking off the rust for Leicester and recently played a significant role in the Tigers’ impressive away win at Saracens. He’s still not at 100% and may never be the Tuilagi that wowed us all years ago, but he is certainly an option and one that is different to anything England have had over the last two years, particularly if deployed at 12.
How about the scrum-half dilemma?
Danny Care has been a fine player for England and his role spelling Ben Youngs has been extremely successful, but he has not been able to exhibit the same control and instil the same direction as a starter that the Leicester man has. Similarly, Richard Wigglesworth’s role as a ‘finisher’ is not one that is best-suited to his skills.
A switch of the two for Ireland would be interesting, or could a call-up for one of Jones’ former training squad selections, Jack Maunder or Ben Spencer, beckon? How about Ben Vellacott, whose electric play for Gloucester has earned enough interest from England for the Cherry and White scrum-half to turn down Scotland for a shot with the Red Rose?
England needed something two weeks ago. They still need something this week.
It could be a midfield revamp, a new threat in the back-row or an injection of energy at nine, but there’s no denying England need something extra ahead of the Ireland game.
Jones can’t keep throwing the same players at the problem and expecting a different result. That’s the definition of rugby coaching madness.
If the goal of his coaching tenure is to lead England to a Rugby World Cup triumph next year in Japan, sending out the same contingent of tired players to face an in-form and efficient Ireland side is not going to improve their chances of global success. In fact, another loss now may do more damage than good in the long run.
Finding a player or two who can take to international rugby and step up if key injuries strike next year, though, could be exactly the fillip England need to a disappointing start to 2018.
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