England fans, be careful clutching those straws. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there was a bit of merit in Saturday’s performance against Scotland, some feel-good factors to help forget the cack-handed manner in which the RFU has handled the last few months, from the Eddie Jones farrago to the blitheringly unfeeling and high-handed manner in which it announced its tackle-height stipulations. But, please. Spare me too much upbeat tidings re a third successive Calcutta Cup defeat. Yes, that’s right – defeat. You might say, at least there were no jeers ringing round Twickenham as there had been on that baleful afternoon in November when the Springboks were in town and Jones was effectively on his way out. No boos? That’s your criteria now is it for a fulfilling day at the Twickenham office? Do me a favour. Try running that one past a Martin Johnson or a Lawrence Dallaglio. It shows how far England sank in the dog days of Jones, how low that bar has been set.
What, too, of the caveat that England had had only 11 days of get-together training under the new Steve Borthwick regime? Poppycock. The bulk of these players have been together for several years, familiar with each other’s traits and preferences. If it really does take weeks and months to embed new systems then how do the Barbarians ever cope? England will have plenty of time to get any new-fangled strategies sorted in the long build-up to the Rugby World Cup. The Six Nations Championship is not a rehearsal for anything. Results are everything. And England are now once more out of the running for a Grand Slam, a Triple Crown as well. That’s the reality and that’s not good enough.
Of course there is a degree of sympathy for the plight Borthwick found himself in. And, yes, there were enough positive things for Red Rose supporters from Saturday not to retreat into a dark corner and howl at the moon. But it is still such a dangerous practice to be anything but mortified and miserable after a home defeat. That needs to be the first and by far the most prominent take-away from the loss to Scotland. To concede four tries with its bonus-point value is inadequate. And now rebooted, rejuvenated Italy are on their way with that delightful whippersnapper, Ange Capuozzo, out to do mischief.
Was that an unstoppable Lomu-type finish [by Van der Merwe] or limp defence at the death by England?
Sure, Gregor Townsend’s side played with real verve and ambition, encapsulated in the David Duckhamesque 55-metre try by Duhan van der Merwe, clever and hard-headed in equal measure, not panicking when eight points adrift after Ellis Genge’s try early in the second-half, trusting themselves and each other to find a way to the finishing tape in front which they duly did after the van der Merwe’s second try. Again, was that an unstoppable Lomu-type finish or limp defence at the death by England?
If your glass is half-full then you will bang on about defence being the easiest thing to fix, that the would-be tacklers that missed van der Merwe on his long-range flight of fancy will not make those sort of mistakes again, that Owen Farrell will not fly out of the line to enable Scotland’s opening try, or Ben Curry let Ben White slip away, and so on and so on. Well, maybe. Let’s see.
England will probably get tighter and tougher. They have Italy next, no easy assignment after those heroics at the Stadio Olimpico, and they have to up their game if they are to get in shape for the business-end of the tournament with visits to Cardiff and Dublin to come as well as a visit from France who, surely, will not be so feckless and ill-disciplined by then.
Despite the misgivings England do have some reasonable gear in their locker. There is the footballing nous of Max Malins (a player who, rather like Saracens teammate, Alex Goode, was never properly appreciated by Jones) while up-front there was a lot to admire in the ball-carrying of Genge and Kyle Sinckler. Ollie Chessum brought ballast and work-rate to the cause while Lewis Ludlam did as blindside flankers are supposed to do, graft and graft and graft. Ben Earl showed well when he came on and should start ahead of Ben Curry next weekend. Earl was designated replacement not one of those absurd so-called ‘finishers’ as beloved by Jones. Borthwick did well in his re-brand but what he really needs to focus on is making changes for change sake. Perhaps Genge and Sinckler were running on empty but did Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola add value, likewise Ben Youngs? Not in my book.
There are continuing concerns about England’s ability to get their maul on the move. It’s as if the once-famed England maul has disappeared into rugby’s Bermuda Triangle.
There are continuing concerns about England’s ability to get their maul on the move. It’s as if the once-famed England maul has disappeared into rugby’s Bermuda Triangle. One minute its’s there, a guaranteed source of territory and pressure, the next it’s just a static mess of bodies as Scotland showed when easily snuffing out England’s final shot at saving the game.
And so, to the most pressing issue of all for England. Yes, we need to talk about Marcus and Owen. It’s a combination that ought to work, two fly-halves, both gifted, but it doesn’t. The sum of the parts and all that. It’s not a new conundrum in the game – Ollie Campbell or Tony Ward, Rob Andrew or Stuart Barnes, Carlos Spencer or Andrew Mehrtens but not both at the same time. Injury may have shaped Borthwick’s hand but it didn’t force it. Ollie Lawrence or Manu Tuilagi could have slotted into the no.12 role but the England head coach opted to do as Jones had done to no great end and throw both of his playmakers into the fray. It’s not a total disaster, and both men on Saturday had sound individual moments, but it is far from a triumph. It is time to install Farrell as the starting fly-half, England’s kingmaker come what may.
England v Italy at Twickenham in the second round looked as if it might be a routine fixture. It no longer is.
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