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Why England have fallen in the Six Nations since 2020

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Dan Mullan /Dave Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images and Michael Steele/Getty Images)

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Eddie Jones’ arrival as England head coach in 2016 coincided with the peak years of a golden generation on the rise at Nigel Wray’s ill-fated experiment at Saracens.

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For better or worse, the financial engineering built a superpower of a club of which provided Jones’ side with the backbone of his England side. He had a ready-made champion forward pack to hit the ground running when he started his tenure.

Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, George Kruis, Owen Farrell all entered their peak years in 2016, and Saracens were already at the top of the domestic scene.

They had claimed the Premiership title in May 2015, less than six months before England’s World Cup flame-out in September.

Just three out of the starting England XV, 20 percent, were Saracens players against Wales during that World Cup, while against Australia, that number shrunk to two, neither of whom were in the forward pack.

By the time England went on their 2016 summer tour of Australia, Saracens had captured a second straight Premiership title and their first European crown. Selecting the backbone of the Saracens team was a no-brainer and boded well for England.

Against the Wallabies that June, 50 percent of the England pack were now Saracens players. Mako and Billy Vunipola started at prop at No 8, respectively, while Maro Itoje and George Kruis packed down in the second row.

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When Jamie George took over the starting hooker role from Dylan Hartley, that number rose to 62.5 percent of the starting pack.

This had enormous benefits for England. They had been already playing together for years, offering a foundation level of chemistry to work from and had incredible coaching and success under Mark McCall.

They had already proven to be one of the best packs in the Heineken Cup, which proved promising for Six Nations action. They had the power to bully the likes of Ireland and Scotland, and the might to beat France and Wales in a dogfight.

Taking most of your forwards from one successful club isn’t a foolproof strategy, but it does happen frequently with successful test sides.

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Looking at the current Ireland side who finished second behind France, 87.5 percent of the starting pack is from Leinster. Just one starting forward, Tadhg Beirne, doesn’t play for Leinster, but he originally came through that development system.

The 2019 Springboks pack was similarly dominated by one club team, the Stormers.

Starters Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit were all at the Cape Town club at the time, while Duane Vermuelen had played 89 times for the club between 2009-15 .

75 percent of the starting forward pack in the World Cup final were either current or ex-Stormers. On the bench, Steven Kitshoff and Francois Louw were long-tenured Stormers and Western Province products, and Vincent Koch had a two-year stint there.

Any forward pack needs time to perfect deep lineout playbooks, develop collective scrummaging chemistry and understand carrying, passing, cleaning, and running line tendencies.

Playing week-in, week-out at club level certainly helps speed up the process to build a cohesive unit.

Saracens’ success quickly became England’s success as Jones slowly began building his team around this young core in 2016, taking the remaining experienced hands from the 2015 failure and fusing it with the Saracens core over time.

The Vunipola brothers offered power running that steamrolled opposition packs and dented backlines. From short lineout packages, Billy was a force from set-piece lining up in the midfield.

Mako, on the other hand, nearly always netted a positive gain line when carrying in close quarters, and between George, Itoje and Kruis, the lineout ball was reliable.

The platform up front was there consistently for a backline to put it together.

Chief playmaker Owen Farrell resumed a lifelong partnership with George Ford that began in age-grade rugby as a 10-12 axis.

Outside them, athletes like Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Jonathan Joseph, Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Chris Ashton and Henry Slade were interchangeable depending on whether Jones wanted speed or power, or a combination of both.

When the Saracens’ salary cap breaches came to light and put the club in turmoil, England was bound to suffer as a result.

Having your test pack play rugby in the English Championship is not the ideal situation. Trying to keep the squad from fracturing due to club animosities was another challenge.

Under Jones, England did hold it together to win another Six Nations title in 2020 and the Autumn Nations Cup that November with largely the same squad.

Saracens pushed through to the Heineken Cup semi-finals, falling short to Racing 92, despite playing for nothing in the Premiership having been stripped of competition points.

In 2021, when Saracens officially headed to the Championship, the wheels came off for England.

The fifth-place finish in the Six Nations forced Jones to consider the reset button and start a rebuild. By doing so, he would potentially lose the cohesion of his forward pack, but perhaps be in a better place by 2023.

He made the call to break up the Saracens pack, but the reality for Jones was England’s new Premiership-winning teams just weren’t at the level the London-based club were at.

Harlequins won the 2020 domestic title, but were rolled in European competition, failing to make the round of 16 in 2020-21.

They are faring much better this season, with four wins from four in pool play, with two wins each over Castres and Cardiff. The jury is still out, though, as they don’t have the runs on the board in Europe that Saracens had.

Leicester Tigers are the new Premiership frontrunners, with Saracens and Harlequins filling out the top three, but the Tigers aren’t proven yet against the best in Europe either.

As a result, this year’s English pack is a liquorice all sorts as the new clubs rise in England.

The starting forward pack against France was two from Bath (25 percent), one from Leicester (12.5 percent), one from Exeter, two from Northampton, and two from Saracens.

Against Ireland, it was two from Saracens, one from Exeter, one from Sale, one from Northampton, one from Bath, one from Harlequins and one from Leicester.

There is an easy conclusion to be made that there is no cohesion in this pack yet. In addition, the younger players haven’t dominated all before them either.

Alex Dombrandt is a quality player in the Premiership, but doesn’t yet have the experience of playing, and beating, the best of Europe with Harlequins like Billy Vunipola.

Sam Simmonds is another quality Premiership player in a similar boat. Exeter had European success in 2020 but struggled for a long time to make a deep European run.

Picking quality players from all the different Premiership teams and trying to mould an England pack with limited preparation windows is a very tall ask, one that Jones hasn’t had to really do since becoming England head coach.

There is simply not enough time to build cohesion at the level Eddie’s old England pack had.

The ready-made Saracens pack, already champions of Europe with years of experience who dominated all before them, was a drag and drop install that instantly made England one of the world’s best test sides, certainly a top two team in Europe.

Is it any surprise that France won a Grand Slam this year with a side made up of largely Toulouse and La Rochelle players? The two clubs were in the European final last year, and then again in the Top 14 final. Toulouse have been a force in Europe for the last four years.

Of the 13 forwards in France’s playing 23 against England, eight (61.5 percent) were from Toulouse or La Rochelle. The halves, Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, have also been playing together at Toulouse for a long time.

What happened at Saracens derailed England at the same time. That Billy Vunipola’s test career is stalled or over is indicative of the damage done. As a 29-year-old No 8, he hasn’t reached the retirement age of that position.

The Saracens-era for England should have continued for a few years and potentially been there at the 2023 World Cup.

Jones believed the path of a reset was necessary, but English domestic rugby doesn’t have another pack like it, so it will take time to forge one. Perhaps time that Jones might not have.

The likes of Ireland can rely on Leinster and France are banking on the success of Toulouse and La Rochelle and the 2022 Six Nations showed it is hard to match that chemistry.

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