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FEATURE The three fixable factors behind Eddie Jones' England stagnation

The three fixable factors behind Eddie Jones' England stagnation
1 year ago

Sir Clive Woodward may not have held any international coaching positions since the disastrous British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand more than 17 years ago, but he is still an important voice in the English media. That tour back in 2005 is the last chapter in a coaching career which reached its apogée with England’s one and only triumph at the World Cup in 2003.

Sir Clive now writes regularly for The Daily Mail, and he has had a lot to say about Eddie Jones and his tenure as England head coach recently.

At the end of the November series, he wrote as follows:

“This was the worst week in English rugby history.

“The game in this country is a total shambles and the comprehensive defeat to a South Africa side without nine of its best players showed it.

“Losing to a second-string Springbok outfit came just days after the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport slammed the leading figures in English rugby for the way they run the sport. When are the leading figures at the RFU going to wake up and realise English rugby is in trouble? Everything is not OK. Eddie Jones will be allowed to carry on as he likes yet again.”

Woordward RFU Dallaglio
Clive Woodward has had plenty to say about England’s recent troubles. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

On the 27th of November, the very next day, he doubled down on his comments:

“England are not just losing, they are going backwards at an alarming rate of knots.

“On Sunday, the RFU released a bland statement confirming their review panel will ‘discuss’ the autumn campaign.

“This is the same anonymous RFU review panel that has been in place since 2019. So, here we go again. Another year, another review.”

All three of RFU CEO Bill Sweeney, director of performance rugby Conor O’Shea, and Jones himself have copped the spray in the media. Just over one week later, the review has been completed and the results published. The RFU have been seen to have acted, and the 62-year-old ex-Randwick man is out of a job.

Two weeks before, Eddie Jones had contacted me to give an outsider’s view of how things were going, relative to developments in the game as a whole. That meeting will probably now never happen, but it helped focus my thinking about England’s progress, or lack thereof, over the past couple of years.

The type of change needed was not a major overhaul, but rather a fine-tuning of personnel and tactics.

While there is no question that England’s development has been flat-lining in 2022, that kind of stagnation is not all uncommon in any long seven-year cycle for a sporting coach. If the meeting with Eddie had materialised, I would have been reasonably positive that England could have moved off the plateau, moved out of base camp and begun to climb the mountain of improvement in time for the tournament in France next year.

The type of change needed was not a major overhaul, but rather a fine-tuning of personnel and tactics, and it never entered my mind that Eddie Jones would be given the push without being allowed to make the necessary adjustments. To be sacked in the seventh year of an eight-year cycle is the wrong decision, and Eddie should have been given the chance to right the ship before September 2023.

There were mistakes made in the key game against South Africa. The best scrummaging front row that England can now field is comprised of Ellis Genge at loosehead, Jamie George at hooker and Will Stuart at tighthead. That trio should have started the match against the Springboks, and been encouraged to stamp their authority on proceedings.

As it was, Mako Vunipola took a pounding from Frans Malherbe, losing the penalty battle 3-1 at scrum time to the Western Province strongman. Even the penalty he won should have gone the other way, and that would have made it a 4-0 clean sweep for Malherbe.

Mako Vunipola had a tough time against the Springboks in November. (Photo by Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images)

England sorely missed the presence of Courtney Lawes at number 6, both as a level-headed skipper of the side and as the essential balance in any back-row that includes Billy Vunipola at number 8. Eddie picked Sam Simmonds instead and he cannot do the same job as the big Saints man, in any aspect of the game.

But by far the biggest bullet to be bitten was the dual selection of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell at number 10 and 12. At the beginning of July, I questioned their selection as a pair in midfield . In the summer series against Australia, there were already rather more positives when Farrell appeared at first receiver in the back-line, and fewer with Smith at the same spot:

Those three examples show Smith vulnerable when taking the ball into contact, uncertain on the pass when confronted by a structured defensive line, and picking the wrong option with a man extra – the pass needs to go short and include number 2 Jamie George in the attacking play to stop the Wallabies drifting toward touch.

Fast forward the same combination to the autumn game against the Springboks, and we find Owen Farrell taking more and more responsibility, and Marcus Smith less and less for the organisation of attacking play. Farrell handled the ball 13 times at first or second receiver, to Smith’s eight, in the course of the game:

On the first phase from a good lineout ball won off-the-top, Owen Farrell is standing at first receiver, passing to Manu Tuilagi and cleaning out at the first ruck. But if you thought this was mere preparation for the attacking play moving through Marcus Smith on second phase, you would be wrong:

The ball is taken on through Mako Vunipola in the forwards, and Smith is not an option for the pass pulled behind into the second line. When the ball comes back to the lineout side of the field on third phase, the Harlequins magician is again bypassed, with the ball going through the hands of Maro Itoje and out the back to Farrell, with full-back Freddie Steward running straight past Smith to become the next option outside him. Marcus Smith is emphatically neither organising the play, nor is he is a key factor in the attack.

Insert CC Cardiff 1

The pattern here is the same as before: Farrell to Tuilagi with the former cleaning out, and Smith running straight past the point of contact into no man’s land. Mako again takes the ball up on second phase, and by third phase Smith [1] is still facing away from his scrumhalf and in no position to receive a pass. All of the England team are grouped in one half of the field and the attack is dead in the water.

Four of Smith’s five kicks had negative outcomes and one led directly to a counter-attack try by the Boks:

It’s a poor choice of kick, with one forward (George) and one back (Steward) left to cover half of the field against some of South Africa’s most enterprising counter-attackers, Damian Willemse, Willie le Roux and Kurt-Lee Arendse.

Another of Smith’s passes almost had the same outcome:

Owen Farrell has 100 caps under his belt and is a dominating on-field personality. It was never likely that Marcus Smith was going to flourish with Farrell alongside him. At Harlequins, he is given the reins and everyone else is a supporting actor whereas with England, he was very much playing second or even third fiddle.

During their best passage of attacking play in the entire Autumn series – the last ten minutes versus the All Blacks – the first and second receivers were typically Henry Slade and Owen Farrell:

Eddie Jones had to get tough, make a choice between Owen Farrell or Marcus Smith at 10, put Manu Tuilagi at 12 and pick Henry Slade (or even Alex Lozowski of Saracens) at outside centre. That would have worked.

As it was, England simply could not generate enough of the turnover-based opportunities which are created so routinely for Marcus Smith at the Stoop, under the auspices of two New Zealand coaches, Tabai Matson and Nick Evans. Just about the only example from the November series sparked the England comeback versus New Zealand:

England have won the ball back from one of their own kick-offs, and all Smith has to do is react instinctively to the space in front of him and take the gap. It did not happen nearly enough.

There will be plenty of people in the media hugging themselves with glee at Eddie Jones’ downfall, but the fact is that he was not far from producing a World Cup team to compete with the very best. Pick the strongest scrumming front row consistently, add Courtney Lawes (and maybe Jack Willis) to the back five forwards, make that key choice between Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith at number 10 rather than trying to squeeze them both into the same starting XV – the recipe for success was rather straightforward.

Eddie’s England may have been flatlining but he had earned the right to dig them out of the hole. A new head coach, with all the associated bells and whistles only nine months before a World Cup? No, thank you.


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