However, through the highs and lows, Eddie Jones achieved a number of successes in terms of building towards the ultimate prize in Japan later this year. Let’s not forget his side came fifth last year, the worst result in Six Nations history for England, and the knives were out as England’s ship veered drastically off course.
The second-place result in 2019 will appease no one inside the camp but they will be well aware that there has been little correlation between the Six Nations winner in a World Cup year and success at the showpiece event.
England has improved and is heading on the right trajectory, which is all that matters right now.
The squads that won the 2016 and 2017 Six Nations titles are vastly different to today’s team. His ambition to be the ‘fittest team on the planet’ by the World Cup resulted in an over-worked and tired side that fell off a cliff in 2018. However, that disaster has given Jones the clarity required to make some bold decisions.
He has recognised that Japan might be a bridge too far for some and moved on from the elder statesmen that have been integral in his early success with the side – Mike Brown, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, Jonathan Joseph, and Anthony Watson are for whatever reasons, all afterthoughts at the moment.
England had real issues in the back-row in last year’s Six Nations, with no real answer at openside and a loose forward contingent that was widely criticised as being ‘unbalanced’. Now, England lay claim to possibly the best pair of 7’s in the world in Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, and are able to play with increased game speed as a result.
Jones had enough conviction to hand 20-year-old Curry the number 7 jersey for the tour of South Africa last June, a specialist fetcher type that isn’t what his title-winning England sides used in the first two years of his reign.
He has previously been on record about ‘not requiring’ a specialist openside flanker, stating he sees the requirements of the role differently, even recently floating the idea of playing winger Jack Nowell there.
He picked Curry for all three tests, showing he wanted to at least move away from a back-row based on size and power, to one with more mobility and the potential to create multiple turnovers. In the Autumn internationals, Sam Underhill also showed his wares, along with blindside Mark Wilson.
Jones’ gamble on Tom Curry has paid off in 2019, as he was arguably England’s most consistent and influential performer in this year’s tournament. It’s even hard to imagine the side without him now, the punishing defence he brings in close ruck channels consistently puts the opposition behind the 8-ball while his ability over the ball is averaging a turnover per game.
It’s now evident that Jones has settled on his loose forward selections and his preferred number ones in that position group. England seems to have found the right formula, and as a result, are a better team.
After using seven different midfield partnerships and seven different back three combinations in 13 tests last year, Jones has found stability in the midfield but retained flexibility in the back three.
One of reasons why the midfield has become settled is the abolishment of the Ford-Farrell axis at 10-12, which has allowed Farrell to resume duties at 10. England has introduced a ball-playing 13 in Henry Slade, who, along with Manu Tuilagi, have started every match together except Italy.
Slade brings an extra kicking option to the side that can be deployed in wider channels along with Elliot Daly to compliment England’s kick-pressure game, along with a polished passing game that opens up the opportunities for the wingers on the outside, something that has been amiss with a ball-carrying battering ram at centre.
On defence, Slade’s presence is enabling a high-line defence that can bring pressure and create turnovers. His tackle percentage has improved dramatically, from a sub-standard 58% in 2018 to 79% in 2019 and he’s forcing errors in the tackle and snagging intercepts as a disruptive force.
Elliot Daly has leapfrogged Mike Brown in the pecking order as a fullback/winger option, bringing extra speed into the equation as well as a long-range sniping option off the tee. Concerns over his ability under the high ball still exist, but overall he brings more upside. Jack Nowell is another elusive athlete that brings speed and agility along with dual-position cover and Chris Ashton is a fast-finisher with power to provide another change-up.
A healthy Manu Tuilagi has been inserted outside Farrell at inside centre, who just needs to focus on carrying hard and creating front-foot ball. A number of England’s set-piece plays are designed strikes on the third phase or later, requiring impactful gain line on the first phase to bend the line and start to reduce numbers on feet. Tuilagi brings that nearly every time.
Against smaller opponents that don’t bring a clinical aerial kick-contest game, Jones can deploy his power line-up and add Ben Te’o and Joe Cokanasiga to the mix to basically bully the opposition into submission – see his lineups for Australia, Japan, and Italy.
Re-instating just one primary driver for the team at flyhalf is conceptually sound for England, but the form of Owen Farrell in that structure against Wales and Scotland is a concern. Inconsistent performances will kill England’s World Cup hopes and he will need to string together at least three of them in a row to lift the William Webb Ellis trophy.
Overall, Eddie Jones has reshaped nearly 50% of his preferred starting line-up over the last 18 months, with the midfield and loose forwards the areas of major focus as well as doing away with a dual playmaker system.
He deserves credit for enacting change, something that rivals Ireland are having to contemplate just six months away from the World Cup after continuity issues and a lack of form this year, right on the 11th hour.
The All Blacks, as late as last year, were also still exploring different ideas late in the cycle with a 10-15 dual playmaking model with Damian McKenzie and Beauden Barrett for the first time. Although it wasn’t firing, it showed that they are leaving no stone unturned and are always trying to evolve despite the success. The game can change quickly and adaption should be the only constant.
Ireland have missed the opportunity to explore having Sexton and the in-form Joey Carbery on the field at the same time in a similar fashion to the All Blacks, with Carbery playing fullback like when the two were on the roster at Leinster.
When the opportunity arose with Rob Kearney out injured against England, they selected Robbie Henshaw in a defensive system basically built for Kearney and it backfired, while their attack hasn’t set the world on fire either. Perhaps, seeing what Carbery could offer at 15 would have sparked some innovation.
You would have to say that England’s most impressive performance in the Six Nations was that opening round stunning of Ireland, which is of concern. You can’t peak at the start of the World Cup, you have to get better and better as the tournament goes on despite feeling the fatigue of high-level test matches.
It was also proven that England’s cookie-cutter kick-pressure game plan only worked when the opposition flaws presented. When Wales employed a two-back system and defused the aerial barrage, England’s main points pipeline dried up.
They could have still found some territorial success with this game plan by tweaking the main kicking options, using Daly and Slade on the fringes. Moving the ball to the edge would ensure at least one of the fullbacks has to come up to take the last man, offering a window in behind to plug the corner.
Instead, Farrell tried and failed, to execute kicks under pressure from first receiver illustrating England’s inability to tactically adjust for the opponent.
Overall, England are in much, much better shape than this time last year and that is in large part down to bold decisions by Eddie Jones to freshen up his playing group with younger talent.
Eddie Jones frustrated by England’s mental lapses:
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