By Sam Martin
Well, that was not how it was supposed to go, was it? England, the team who had claimed the Six Nations crown in 2017, won it in grand slam fashion back in 2016 and been the second-best team in the world at the start of the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby tournament, finished this year’s competition in fifth — yes, fifth.
Only the Italians, who haven’t won a Six Nations match in the last 16 attempts, came below them. Alarm bells are well and truly ringing around Twickenham. So, what do England do about this disaster? If Eddie Jones decides to look to Durham’s very own student newspaper for answers, he might get a helping hand…
Stop trying to be New Zealand
The All Blacks of New Zealand have, unquestionably, been the best rugby team on the planet since they lifted the World Cup in Auckland back in 2011. As a result, it is natural that any team aiming to dethrone the mighty Kiwis would look to them and try and copy their recipe for success. However, Eddie Jones has taken this too far in his pursuit of the ultimate prize in world rugby and appears to have forgotten the strengths that underpinned England during the successful years of Sir Clive Woodward’s tenure as England coach.
The All Blacks are able to play fast-paced, attacking rugby, mixing in players from across their extraordinary Super Rugby club franchises. This is not to say that England are unable to play attacking rugby, but they should take note from the Aviva Premiership and adopt the tactics that have made Exeter Chiefs the best team in the competition for a number of years now.
Exeter supplement brutally powerful forward play with delightfully orchestrated backs-moves to pull out win after win. The Exeter Head Coach, Rob Baxter, has perfected the technique of ‘mastering the process’, trusting his players to use their brains when playing to find the oppositions weaknesses. The Chiefs have had massive success in the last two or three years, yet Eddie Jones seems allergic to including some of their best players in the England squad, a bizarre scenario considering how tepid England look at the moment.
This is demonstrated by the fact that stars like Don Armand, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Ollie Devoto have a smattering of inconsequential England caps between them and yet are clearly masterful players. Eddie Jones is too obsessed with his own tactics to look around English rugby and learn from the successful teams in the Premiership. He needs to stop trying to mimic New Zealand and start playing to England’s strengths. Maybe this way, the national team can get back to where it was last year.
Put Owen Farrell back at Fly-Half
The George Ford-Owen Farrell axis in the English midfield has come into question this Six Nations and it appears time for a change to be made. There is great merit to having two playmakers in the English backline because, supposedly, it gives the team more attacking options and the chance to really open up this game.
Clearly though, this has not happened. This is primarily because George Ford has looked a shell of the man who terrorised Australia back in 2016 and led England to a grand slam in that very year’s Six Nations tournament. He appears lost when play breaks down, which is why I think they need to move the more composed and experienced Owen Farrell back to no.10 and open up the centre positions for bigger bodies.
Farrell has struggled this year to deal with much of the tackling and defensive responsibilities of an international inside-centre, and moving him back to his more natural fly-half position would allow Jones to bring the hulking and powerful frame of Ben Te’o into the inside centre position and free up the outside centre role for the sparkling feet of a Jonathon Joseph or a Henry Slade. This would mean that England’s attack could become much more two-dimensional with both power and finesse present in their attack. George Ford is a fine player, but his confidence looks completely depleted and thus, for the sake of England’s performances, he really does need to be dropped.
A Change at Captain
The appointment of Dylan Hartley as England captain ruffled some feathers back in 2016, but for the first two years of his tenure England were very successful. Recent form, however, would suggest a change is necessary. Hartley, more famed for his indiscipline than his actual on-field play, is symptomatic of the erratic and penalty-strewn performances that England have been putting in recently. Furthermore, he has been depriving the more talented Jamie George of much-needed starter’s minutes, with George being a much more explosive option at Hooker.
If Hartley were to be dropped, then who would fill his position as captain? Well, it might be slightly left-field, but my suggestion would be the man that led England during the Stuart Lancaster era – Chris Robshaw. His credentials were called into question after the errors of the 2015 World Cup, but Robshaw has forced his way back into the conversation as England captain. He is perhaps the only player who comes out of this year’s Six Nations tournament with any form of credit. He worked tirelessly at the breakdown without ever complaining, showing the world that he is a real, world-class flanker. He will have learnt an immense amount from his time as captain and I believe he is one of the few players that can truly lead by example in the England squad.
He may not be the most fiery player on the pitch for the men in white — that prize has to go to the pit bull himself Mike Brown — but Robshaw’s unwavering commitment to the team and his calmness and prowess on the pitch make him, in my opinion, the obvious choice for England captain.
Bring in the young talent
Watching England this spring, the overwhelming sensation is that the team look stale. These were players who were lighting up the world last year but now look a shadow of their former selves. Certainly, the busy Premiership schedule and the minutes played during the summer Lions tour will have taken its toll on the England players but, nonetheless, they lack excitement.
And so, England need to commit to trying to bring through younger, hungrier players into the team, something that Ireland have excelled at. The Irish were majestic this year and it was their young stars — Jacob Stockdale, Joey Carbury, Andrew Porter, et al — who really spearheaded this season’s strong showing. England need some of that energy, some of that veracity, so the coaching staff need to give more playing time to the likes of Sam Underhill or Kyle Sinckler for them to really learn to make a difference for the international team. It is imperative that they do this with a World Cup taking place next year because, if they don’t, England have very little international experience behind their starting line-up if an injury hits the team.
England have the tools to change and get back to winning ways, and the summer tour to South Africa could be a great opportunity to bring through the next generation of players. Eddie Jones just needs to try and adapt his coaching style and then England can, once again, be a force to be reckoned with in international rugby.
Photograph: DIALLO 25 via Wikimedia Commons