It was an inauspicious start on Sunday for the coaching team of Eddie Jones, John Mitchell, Steve Borthwick, Matt Proudfoot and Simon Amor, as England looked listless and without direction in their 24-17 Guinness Six Nations loss to France in Paris.
In a dire first half, England shipped 17 unanswered points to a youthful and energised French side and, were it not for two pieces of individual brilliance from Jonny May in the second half, the final score could have well looked far worse for the recent Rugby World Cup finalists.
For many, the performance was a stark reminder of England’s struggles in 2018, when the team lacked for balance and was regularly overpowered, particularly in the forward pack and in the midfield. There have been few, if any, worse 40-minute displays from England under Jones than that opening half against France.
Whether through a lack of physicality or inventiveness in attack, England completely lacked for incision and despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession and territory, not to mention numerous entries into the French 22, they could not create opportunities in the same fashion their opponents did. Those that they did create were swiftly squandered.
Plenty of credit must go to France, too, who looked a vastly improved side from their struggles at the Rugby World Cup. Charles Ollivon was excellent in his new role as captain, whilst Gregory Alldritt and Bernard Le Roux shone alongside him as leaders by example in the pack. Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack dovetailed nicely in the half-backs and France’s exciting back line had no trouble shutting down England defensively, in addition to their obvious attacking ability.
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Watch: Owen Farrell and Eddie Jones face the press after the loss in Paris
If there was one area of positivity for England, it was the performance of their scrum under the tutelage of new coach Proudfoot, the same man who had masterminded the South African destruction of the English set-piece just a few months ago in Japan. Joe Marler, Jamie George and Kyle Sinckler all enjoyed scrum dominance over their opposite numbers, whilst Ellis Genge maintained that superiority when he arrived from the bench in the second half.
Away from the scrum, though, it was a tale of ineffectiveness, as England looked to lack all the dynamism that had served them so well at the Rugby World Cup. Even powerful carriers like Sinckler and Maro Itoje were dulled in Paris, as the back row of Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry struggled to lay the same aggressive foundation that had made it such a feared group last year.
To put some numbers alongside that, England’s starting and bench forwards only made 79m on a total of 86 carries, at an average of 0.92m per carry. Sinckler, whose attacking involvements had been so ruthless at the Rugby World Cup, accounted for just 2m on his 10 carries. Without the Vunipola brothers breaking the gain-line and providing quick ball for the rest of the pack to work with, England looked lost in a Parisian sea of blue shirts and impressive line-speed.
Scotland had a glut of golden field position and must-score moments against Ireland, but couldn’t make any of them count. Yet @JLyall93 has picked out plenty of positives for Gregor Townsend's side.https://t.co/okBZIjk7Tq
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
England’s kick and chase game, another area where they prospered during the Rugby World Cup, also looked a shell of its former self, as they regularly over-kicked their chase and gave the French back three – and Alldritt – time and space to beat the first one or two chasers and then gouge England for more significant gains. Whether it was Ben Youngs box-kicking from a slow ruck or George Ford trying to push the corners from first receiver, England were unable to find space, territory or their chasers, as their proactive kicking from last year looked long gone.
The back line was also uncharacteristically error prone, as Owen Farrell dropped a simple pass under no pressure, Ford and debutant George Furbank struggled to connect in the midfield and the wings, aside from May’s two impressive solo efforts in the second half, were starved of the ball. Youngs’ missed tackle on Vincent Rattez for the Frenchman’s try and May’s lack of chasing back on Ollivon’s first score were representative of a terrible day at the office for a side that was dissecting and punishing the All Blacks just two games previously.
With defence, attack and work at the contact area all falling well below their usual standards, England have a lot of questions to answer before they take to Murrayfield on the weekend and contest the Calcutta Cup, with Scotland’s performance in Dublin having comfortably surpassed that of England’s in Paris.
An ability to get over the gain-line is surely priority number one for Jones and the other coaches, although the lack of a physical No 8 in the squad, with Alex Dombrandt and Nathan Hughes excluded, does not help them in that goal. Within the squad, a start for Lewis Ludlam would help England punch holes in the Scottish defence, whilst Ben Earl would also offer an intriguing option in that regard.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
Away from the back row, despite how well Marler played against France, starting Genge is another way to generate more front-foot ball. Bringing Kruis back into the second row could also be key, with Charlie Ewels having struggled to replicate that same physicality as a one-out runner, a strategy that England consistently went to, with little success, throughout the game in Paris.
Unless Dombrandt gets called into the squad in the next day or so and he can provide a like-for-like replacement for the ball-carrying lost by Vunipola’s absence, Jones needs to re-evaluate the balance of his pack. Scotland won’t test England as physically as France did, but it remains the most significant Achilles’ heel for Jones’ side.
The arrival of Heinz coincided with a higher tempo and the effectiveness of the kicking game, which saw England able to kick on their own terms and with urgency, rather than on slower ball and with no other option, understandably improved. On the display in Paris alone, there is a strong case for Heinz to start in Edinburgh. A quicker tempo will have a positive knock-on effect on the kicking games of Ford and Farrell, too.
One other area where England need to find an alternative is in their midfield, where Manu Tuilagi’s early departure through injury saw them looking toothless. Without the pack getting over the gain-line and the half-backs delivering quick ball, Jonathan Joseph was not able to have the impact that he would have wanted to. Jones still needs to find a physical centre that can, even on slower ball, run directly and get England moving forward.
One man in particular came in for plenty of praise following France's impressive defeat of England.https://t.co/i7GNGzY4T8
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 3, 2020
Inside Jones’ squad, these options are few and far between, although there are a couple of candidates currently impressing in the Gallagher Premiership, not least so Mark Atkinson and Ollie Lawrence. The two options represent players at different ends of their careers, though the physical impact they could both bring would be beneficial. Atkinson, utilised as an inside centre, would allow Jones to move Farrell back to fly-half, a switch he has been comfortable with previously, whilst Lawrence would give England incision, power and an effective outside break in the 13 jersey.
That all said, Jones has never been one to bow to media pressure. He has selected this squad with a clear plan in mind and it will likely take more than one poor result to cause him to make any sort of wholesale changes to the XV or the larger group. He needs to see a marked improvement this week, though.
If England can’t find a way to make more of the possession and territorial advantages they enjoyed against France, the media pressure is only going to grow. The longer the timespan to that memorable and thoroughly impressive win over New Zealand becomes, the shorter people’s patience will become. A run to the final only raises a demanding fanbase’s expectations.
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