In what will go down as one of the more anti-climactic and disappointing Guinness Six Nations in recent memory, the championship is now over for England, whose final round contest with Italy has been postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak, but they still leave with plenty of takeaways from their four games.
There are reports that the game could end up being played in October, although for now, England’s Six Nations journey is over for another year. Overall, the tournament will be remembered relatively positively by England fans, though the side failed to hit the heights that they did during the Rugby World Cup quarter and semi-finals last year.
That was largely expected, with the demoralising final loss to South Africa and the potential of a RWC hangover fresh in the minds of the players and coaches, and the opening loss to France in Paris had fans braced for a challenging couple of months, as England looked off the pace and far below the standards they set in Japan.
The mood improved, however, as a resolute win was dug out over Scotland in torrential conditions in Edinburgh, before more impressive victories were recorded over Ireland and Wales in performance, if not in the final score-lines. Late defensive lapses or indiscipline cost England what would have been much more emphatic wins, though the 60 or 70-minute performances turned in during those games were a needed tonic for the travails of Yokohama and Paris.
There is no doubt that Eddie Jones will have wanted that match against Italy to further examine his post-RWC squad, but he will still have learned plenty about this group from their Triple Crown-winning performance over the last month, as he attempts to mould another squad that can make it to the RWC final in three years’ time.
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As ridiculous as it sounds, is Mako Vunipola still England’s starting loosehead?
Common sense tells you he almost certainly still is. His all-round game outstrips that of arguably every other loosehead prop on the planet and the burden he shoulders in the carrying game is almost as influential for England as the presence of Manu Tuilagi is in the midfield. That said, he has genuine competition.
The once-retired Joe Marler has been excellent over the past month or so and has helped England put together the most dominant set-piece in the Six Nations. He has anchored the scrum and been physical and unwavering around the fringes as a defender and a ball-carrier.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 7, 2020
Then you have Ellis Genge, with the youngster having not only injected dynamic ball-carrying from the bench, but also very impressive scrum solidity. The Leicester Tiger has even gone after tightheads at the set-piece and his development in that facet of the game has been remarkable. His case to start is growing louder and louder and were it not for the presence of Vunipola, it would probably have become a cacophony in Jones’ ear by now.
Honestly, you probably can’t bench a fit Vunipola, but if his form is ever to dip, England’s other options are banging raucously on Jones’ door.
Age of the 5.5
Having emerged from the age of the 6.5, are England now in an age of the 5.5, following in the wake of Pieter-Steph du Toit’s exceptional 2019 and status as World Rugby’s reigning Player of the Year?
England have toyed with it before. First Maro Itoje had a couple of brief stints on the blindside, before Courtney Lawes moved into the role and England found a more favourable balance in the pack. Now, with Billy Vunipola injured, Lawes has returned to that role and done very well in those opportunities, the game against France arguably aside. With Lawes there, England have looked powerful, without being short of mobility or difference-makers at the breakdown, something which they were critiqued for before in previous outings of this strategy.
Charlie Ewels has also thrown his hat into the ring for this role, with the Bath lock having been part of England’s 6-2 bench split and packed down at both blindside and No 8 at points during this championship. Waiting in the wings England also have Nick Isiekwe and Ted Hill, two more players more than capable of playing this role if asked to.
England have already taken a leaf of out South Africa’s book with the bench split and by hiring the Springbok’s scrum coach Matt Proudfoot, so it should come as no surprise that they are also looking to more readily adopt this wrinkle in their matchday 23s moving forward.
Proudfoot and Mitchell tandem gelling
Speaking of Proudfoot, his impact has already been felt by England and in no area has that been more noticeable than at the scrum, something which harks back to the original point of whether or not Vunipola’s spot as starting loosehead is under threat.
Eddie's major post-RWC addition – Matt Proudfoot – played a major role in today's dominant performance at HQ
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 23, 2020
In addition to the scrum improvements, something which has been particularly eye-catching in Genge’s game, England’s forwards have looked more powerful and dynamic during this tournament, and not reliant on the explosive power of the Vunipola brothers to get them moving forward and win the battle on the gain-line.
England’s defence has looked impressive, too, with the line-speed, tackle accuracy and physicality of the side all standing out. With the games against Ireland and Wales won, there were definitely moments when England switched off defensively and that will not sit well with John Mitchell, though their defensive efforts have looked focused and consistent when games have still been in the balance and there has been more riding on the individual outcomes on the pitch.
Jones has spoken previously of these two aspects being the foundation of England’s game and they look to be in solid shape moving forward.
Scrum-half succession no clearer
As well as Ben Youngs played in the win over Wales on Saturday, England’s future at scrum-half looks no clearer than it did before the tournament. With Youngs and Willi Heinz set to turn 31 and 34 respectively this year, who will be starting at nine for England at the next RWC is anyone’s guess.
Northampton Saints’ Alex Mitchell was initially called up as an apprentice earlier in the tournament, whilst Exeter Chiefs’ Jack Maunder had some late involvement in the squad, but neither came close to seeing the pitch. Dan Robson and Ben Spencer, two players briefly involved during the last RWC cycle, were nowhere to be seen.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 7, 2020
Given that scrum-half is a position where a lot is asked of a player in terms of decision-making and game management, there is no time in a RWC cycle that is too soon to get a player involved and accustomed to the rigours and demands of Test level rugby. It will be a learning curve, even for the more experienced Gallagher Premiership operators, and that is a process that doesn’t look like it’s begun yet, though it could well begin in Japan this summer.
Trying out one or two options at the position and seeing how they gel with the incumbents in the current squad seems like it should be at the top or at least close to the top of Jones’ list of priorities.
Reliance on Tuilagi remains
On the theme of a lack of options, the absence of a like-for-like replacement for Tuilagi remains for England.
It is no mean feat, of course, trying to replicate what Tuilagi brings on the pitch. In fact, it’s probably impossible to completely replace it, though the lack of something even resembling his style of play is somewhat of a concern. Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are fine players in their own right, but they cannot do what Jones asks of Tuilagi.
His importance to the team continues to be apparent, with England’s attack looking blunt and without direction frequently when he is not there, but when he is situated in that back line, not only does his own personal impact show up, the players around him are freed up to perform their own roles even more efficiently, too.
The law firm of Earl, Smith and Lawrence are preparing a case for England in the @premrugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 1, 2020
Ollie Lawrence’s Premiership form surely has him knocking on the door, with his ability to square up defences and find holes and break the line already setting him apart at a domestic level. It’s a big step up to the international arena, though the summer tour of Japan could prove to be the perfecting testing ground for him.
There aren’t too many other 13s in the English game capable of filling that void and barring Jones opting for a more physical 12 in order to replace Tuilagi’s penetration when the Tiger is unavailable, Lawrence would seem to be the next man up.
Comfort in the back three
England’s back three has been a consistent area of strength for the side for some time now and that has not changed in the wake of their RWC disappointment. Elliot Daly has shown growing comfort at full-back, Jonny May is the posterboy for consistency and work rate and Anthony Watson’s return to the England team after injury was a potent reminder of his offensive ability.
Slade looked comfortable filling in at full-back when May was injured against Wales and that gives England a little more flexibility with their current preference for a 6-2 split on the bench. Even the ultra-versatile Jack Nowell can’t currently get a look in, such is Jones’ faith in the starting trio.
“Anything we can do to get him off his game is going to be beneficial to us and I try to lead by example more than words."https://t.co/ruZDhayaSF
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 7, 2020
Joe Cokanasiga and Nathan Earle are currently rehabbing injuries and will hope to put down markers when they return, whilst Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley must remain patient for the time being. George Furbank is on the radar, too, whilst the reportedly Exeter Chiefs-bound Josh Hodge, an apprentice earlier in the tournament, could be the next player to make an accelerated leap from U20 to senior international rugby.
Messrs Ibitoye, Loader, Murley and Hassell-Collins are pushing their own claims in the leafy suburbs of south-west London, whilst RWC squad member Ruaridh McConnochie, out-of-favour Sale Shark Denny Solomona and budding prospect Gabriel Hamer-Webb also all wait in the wings. As far as a depth of talent goes, England may never have had it as good as they currently do in the back three.
That said, with the consistency of Daly, May and Watson, it remains to be seen how many opportunities these challengers are set to see in the coming seasons.
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