Propriety demands that we start with the mitigation. Yes, I know, it’s unusual to be tripping over the small print and the disclaimers in the opening paragraph and, in truth, I’m not a big fan of flimsy excuses. It’s a little like driving to the supermarket, taking a bend too fast, wiping out a bus shelter and then, when questioned by the police, telling the officer; ‘Look, I had this shopping list …’
But, in fairness, England can plead extenuating circumstances for Saturday’s pile-up in the Twickenham area; to be precise, they can plead fifteen of them, each wearing a blue shirt, a defiant thistle and grim, implacable expression. As Eddie Jones magnanimously said, ‘credit Scotland’, and so we should. They were inventive, bristling with intent and sharper than a Savile Row suit; in short, everything England weren’t.
Eddie Jones, as ever when the final whistle feels like a mercy and someone shoves a microphone in his face, fell back onto what I call his ‘circular square dance’ routine.
Which is why, this week, an apocalypse is upon us; indeed, look out of the window and it’s raining frogs, the graves are yawning and yielding up their dead and the ghosts of Twickenham past are Speaking for England. ‘Clueless’, said Lawrence Dallaglio; ‘The worst I’ve ever seen England play by some margin’ said Clive Woodward; ‘So tedious I decided to switch it off and have a bath’, said Nick from Oxfordshire on Twitter. And these were among the more glittering reviews of England’s porridge of a performance.
Eddie Jones, as ever when the final whistle feels like a mercy and someone shoves a microphone in his face, fell back onto what I call his ‘circular square dance’ routine. It goes like this:
Question: ‘Shit, Eddie, what happened there?’
Eddie: ‘Mate, I screwed up. My fault. I got the preparation wrong.’
Question: ‘And what did you get wrong?’
Eddie: ‘Aw, mate, if I knew that, I wouldn’t have got it wrong, would I?’
To which the next question, of course, should be, ‘Well, forgive me, but if you don’t know what you got wrong then how do you know it was your fault?’ but if you’re TV’s pitch-side poke – and you’ll have to trust me on this one – descending into the realms of sophistry three questions into your ninety-second allowance doesn’t butter too many parsnips. You’re there to club the guy to death with your microphone, not engage him in paralogical debate.
Besides, there were other – better – lines of enquiry beyond playing the blame game. ‘Mate, we had no possession,’ whined Jones, this, I confess, being the point at which I spilt my beer all over the sofa. ‘Mate’, if you kick the ball to the opposition all afternoon, then you can’t really turn round afterwards and say we had no possession. It’s like putting your last fiver on a three-legged horse in the 4.30 at Newton Abbott and then moaning you’re broke.
As good as Jones’ team is – and, on its rations, as we know, it’s more than decent – it doesn’t ad lib. Nor does it think on its feet or adapt or improvise. That’s a fatal failing
And herein, in England’s almost anti-rugby philosophy, lies the guts of the issue. It’s all very well playing a percentage, box-booting, turf-hogging game and then looking to force errors, poach turnovers and engender panic but what happens when the other team doesn’t make any errors, doesn’t turn over the ball and doesn’t panic? What if it stays composed, counter attacks with wit and invention and starves you of the ball you’ve frittered away for two-thirds of the game? What happens then? Well in England’s case, not a lot.
Because as good as Jones’ team is – and, on its rations, as we know, it’s more than decent – it doesn’t ad lib. Nor does it think on its feet or adapt or improvise and against a team as streetwise as Scotland, that’s a fatal failing. The – now almost infamous – screenshot on Twitter of Owen Farrell kicking away a seven on three overlap is trending for a reason, the reason being it’s exactly the kind of ‘heads-down-gameplan-or-bust’ approach that any coach from mini-rugby on up should be encouraging his/her team NOT to follow.
The numbers are horrific. England didn’t make a line break all day. Not one. Ben Youngs passed the ball nineteen times; Ali Price passed it sixty-eight times. It spoke volumes. England have a back three which, in Elliot Daly, Anthony Watson and Jonny May, includes two Lions’ Test starters and – arguably – one of the most prolific, electric, match-winning wings Twickenham has seen in a generation. Help me out here, will you; who buys three Ferraris and then parks them on the lawn?
Compare, if you will, Ollie Lawrence and Cameron Redpath – not directly given one’s an apple and the other’s an orange – but rather how gainfully the two youngsters were employed by their fly-halves. Redpath – sublime on debut – was everywhere and involved in almost everything, one of the cornerstones of the Scotland win; Lawrence, bless him, didn’t get a single pass for sixty-three minutes. Let that sink in for a moment. He’s a kid playing twelve – playing twelve – for his country and NO ONE PASSED HIM THE BLOODY BALL FOR AN HOUR.
No question, you could argue that England’s senior players were off the pace. Certainly, Matt Williams, a serial soundbite watching on from over the water, didn’t hold back: ‘The Saracens players weren’t at the races,’ he snorted. ‘Vunipola, if we didn’t know the pubs were closed, you’d swear he’d been in one. He was out of shape. There was no way he was ready for international rugby.’
But, in truth, very few of England’s players were at the races – we’re talking mentally as much as physically – which perhaps explains a penalty count which, not for the first time in the House of Jones, was a contagion. Four were conceded in the first five minutes, nine in the first thirty and fifteen overall; indeed, a referee with a shorter patience than Andrew Brace would’ve dumped more than just Billy Vunipola into the bin. England’s forwards – fourteen of the fifteen penalties conceded – have become whistle magnets, something that should’ve been addressed long before last Saturday. Again, your honour, not smart enough or adaptable enough.
Jonny May dropped two dollies. Not one but two. That’s Olivier drying at Stratford or Kardashian forgetting her eyeliner. Does not happen.
And what do all these penalties bespeak, do you think? These are professional rugby players after all, schooled by referees in video and training sessions and well-versed in the laws of the game. To some degree, yes, copping a penalty is an occupational hazard and, occasionally – whisper it quietly – it’s a last resort but on this scale what it often suggests is a loss of control or clarity of thought; more than that, anxiety, bewilderment, distraction and frustration. It certainly felt as though all these confusions were besetting England on Saturday.
Jonny May dropped two dollies. Not one but two. That’s Olivier drying at Stratford or Kardashian forgetting her eyeliner. Does not happen. So, was he simply astonished to discover there was a ball on the pitch or was he sitting out there on the wing, ignored, exasperated, anxious, overthinking, wondering why on earth he’d been selected and – understandably – losing an inch or two of focus? I’m just speculating; only he’d know.
But what the sum of the performance leaves all of us speculating is whether the England players WANT to play like this. Are they buying into this style? Are they comfortable playing this kind of hoof and hope, calculator rugby or would they rather, as God intended, be doing something more fulfilling, more instinctive, more creative or more positive with the ball?
Hey, Eddie Jones may feel the same way. After all, it was rugby’s great chameleon who said of Ireland not so long ago: ‘They kick 70% of their ball away. If they want to do that, good luck to them. It’s not the way I think they should play rugby but it’s been successful for them, so good luck.’ How ironic would it be if Jones listened a little harder to his inner Eddie?
England look badly exposed to the point of near nudity; or, as my grandmother used to say, ‘it’s only when the tide goes out that you realise who’s been skinny-dipping.’
In truth, it was a result you could see coming a mile off. Even an idiot like me sensed something was on for the Boys in Blue and I can’t find my glasses even when they’re the only thing sitting on top of my billiard ball head. Scotland have been building, bonding and in Pieter De Villiers and Steve McTandy, have recruited intelligently backstage whereas England’s recent run of results have masked serious fault-lines in their performances and strategy. These aren’t words you use lightly but they look way too complacent and predictable.
The good news, I suppose, is they’ve Italy and then a week off to rethink and regroup; the better news is they were woefully off kilter in the opening round of last year’s Six Nations, scraped a losing bonus point in Paris and went on to win the pot. Who knows? History does repeat itself. But, post-Scotland, England look badly exposed to the point of near nudity; or, as my grandmother used to say, ‘it’s only when the tide goes out that you realise who’s been skinny-dipping.’