Five Questions for Eddie Jones
England are still in the tournament, but the margin for error is gone. Nothing broken, but the team has yet to deliver an irrepressible performance. Injuries have been disruptive and Scotland’s outstanding performance highlighted the need to move forward boldly at open side. The game continues to evolve, laying bare sides that rely on brawn in the back row at the expense of a quick, active open side. Here are five other questions that seem pertinent as you continue toward Japan.
Scotland have shown, even during their strong November, they will ship points to a deft attacking side. Move the ball, run smart lines at pace, and you can break the line. Hogg and Russell are not top-tier defenders, which makes their style of play vulnerable to strong attacking teams. Wales opened up the pitch with a bunch of second-choice players. Why did it appear as if England did not take the two-week prep time to develop specific attack plans designed to spread out the defense and create gaps that Ford and Farrell are so good at finding? England appeared to be intent on grinding down Scotland’s forwards and let the rest take care of itself. The pre-planned box kick has a very specific value, but its overuse is producing little offensive punch. The need to score points demands more game-specific creativity.
You boast to the media about how difficult your training sessions are. Players are in the middle of the most important tournament of the year and the business end of the club season, one exacerbated by a Lions hangover. The Premiership season is bad enough at overusing players. Why break these players down now, leading to a somewhat flat-footed display? Your team were decidedly off the pace against Scotland. The amount rugby several top players have logged is well documented. The All Blacks never highlight how much pain they dish out in training to the players in the middle of a competition. In fact, they have pioneered different strategies for keeping their most prized talent fresh.
Depth and selection in key positions
England has depth in abundance in many positions, so why have you left two spine positions vulnerable to injuries or loss of form? Scrum half and fullback are not positions of strength for England. Youngs and Care, who are selected and play as a tandem, probably rank fourth among the 6 Nations teams at present. With Youngs out, the next player in the mix is Wigglesworth. He has long been a fine club pro who has played little test rugby. Who else do you have? We do not know, because we do not see other players get serious opportunities. Mike Brown, similarly, would not crack the top tier of test-level fullbacks. Despite indifferent form, he remains the only specialist fullback in the mix. One strong game against a Wales team that forgot how to kick did not fool anybody, including you. Your decision to pull him off reinforced the questions you treated with contempt two weeks earlier. Watson has had a few chances. We can see from those limited opportunities that he could grow into a test-calibre fullback, but there seems to be no tolerance for the learning process. Who else is ready to step in, should a major injury occur or Brown continues to play as he did against Scotland? At Hooker, Eight, fly-half, you have clear and tested options, so the premium on building succession plans are not so high along the rest of the spine positions. Right now you have one full year to address a lack of depth at two positions that already could benefit from upgrade. Why wait?
Style of play
When you have the depth and breadth of player resources available to you, why play a style of rugby that highlights how irreplaceable one injured player has become? Billy Vunipola has not played any meaningful rugby for England since last year. Every game, perhaps save Italy, tends to reinforce the naïve notion that England’s lack of offensive firepower will be solved when he comes back. Without superior ball carrying from the back row, England have struggled for points throughout your tenure. Your team is hard to beat, but is it great at finding ways to win? Billy is outstanding, but he is too important to England’s success at the moment. Your strategy is too static, whether that is your intention or not.
You are 27 months into your tenure and entering the final phase of World Cup preparation, which you consistently hold up as the only result that matters. Yet England still have the same primary weakness as they did under Lancaster. With some exceptions, England remain a side that does not display attacking prowess. England need to be able to produce more points in attack. Many of the tries scored come from set piece play, where pre-designed moves deliver success. Rare are tries like the one Ford and Farrell combined to create for May on the counterattack against Wales last year. Who is your attack coach? You have distributors, speed and size outside, a mix of big and fleet centers, but the attacking game simply has not come together. The time has come to bring some new talent into the coaching setup.