Summer Loving' Wayne Barnes Style - England
Fourth and final in a series of previews of the June Tests.
Teams have been named for the touring nations and disruptive injuries have played their part. For the Home Nations (such a colonial term), each side has its own momentum (good and less so) and quite specific imperatives, regardless of whether they officially acknowledge them. [As much as I would like to do these pieces for Italy, France, and the southern hemisphere nations too, I just have not seen enough of their rugby this Spring. Hopefully that will change in the future.]
England are smarting, but need to avoid overreaction. Instead, Eddie Jones needs to prove his value through some very incisive decisions related to both personnel and coaching. As noted during the Six Nations, England essentially have the same weaknesses they did when Jones came on board. The game has evolved quickly during those 2-1/2 years and those weaknesses have become more pronounced while England surely have improved overall.
- England still need to find a world-beating back row and an attacking game that will frighten elite sides. Injuries have seriously undermined efforts to find that back row, but selection questions also exist. Jones may have been right to minimise the need for a real open side when he started, but the game now requires at least one. England have promising but untested young players there, but are nowhere near settled and the clock is winding down.
- On attack England have the personnel to do well, but have not settled on their combinations nor shown the necessary inventiveness on anything close to a consistent basis. Ford is outstanding on the front foot, but ineffective otherwise. Farrell is world class, but he is beginning to be found out defensively at 12 (though he could fix that by changing his technique). Cipriani is back, but will he be used and will his defence be good enough, in both commitment and execution?
- Fullback remains pedestrian, but at least Jones has to give someone other than Watson a chance to become Brown’s successor. Succession must happen before the World Cup, as Brown’s strengths are less valuable than five years ago and his weaknesses more glaring. With the squad Jones has selected, Daly deserves the first shot. His Barbarians showing reinforced the idea that Daly could offer a real step forward.
Clouds hang over England, and Jones seems intent on keeping them there. Paul Gustard’s untimely departure, his churlish intolerance of being questioned, training ground injuries, and selections that mystify everyone but him mean all serve to darken those clouds. Yet, the brightening form of Saracens and England stalwarts should give England a real boost, and ought to provide enough mettle to stifle a Springboks squad still shaking off the despair of the past couple of years. Winning in South Africa takes some doing, and England have the potential to put recent wobbles behind them. If England struggle, however, the questions about Jones’ methods will become deafening. He cleverly has England approaching the first Test with a chip on their shoulder attitude, whether he intended that is another matter.
What we want to see
- Tom Curry playing all three Tests at open side, no matter what happens (injury notwithstanding). I would prefer to see Curry, Simmonds, and Billy get a chance together, something Jones does not seem to want to even contemplate.
- Some stability in backline selection. While the temptation is to sample numerous combinations, there are a few positions that need to get settled as soon as possible. If Farrell is not going to be at inside centre in the future, someone else needs to play there. Daly should start every game at fullback, with Brown on the bench, like any normal succession. Similarly, Lozowski has earned the chance to show what he can do at outside centre, and I would give him at least the first two Tests.
- Significant game time for both Robson and Spencer. England are vulnerable at scrum-half, and building a deeper Test-level pool is critical now.
A new dawn may be rising in South Africa, but nobody should expect an instant turnaround. England ought to be able to will themselves to a win in the first Test, provided Billy Vunipola holds up. Hopeful signs for the Springboks will be some adventurous play in the backline and something beyond ponderous among the forwards. I cannot see either side running the table, so buckle up for an interesting and very physical three games.