With the dust settling on the 2017 instalment of the 6 Nations, Toby Webb reflects on the state of the England rugby team
The script was set. In beating Ireland, England were to claim back-to-back Grand Slams, being the first team to achieve this since Italy joined the tournament.
For English fans, the match was a severe anticlimax. While the result was kind to England, at 13-9, it was a dominant performance from the Irish. Eddie Jones, England’s head coach, was tactically outfoxed by his Irish counterpart Joe Schmidt.
The Irish game plan, starving the English of useful possession through perfectly executed mauls and precise territorial kicking, eliminated the English attacking threat. On top of this, England were inaccurate and ill-disciplined: a tournament fully of largely average performances caught up with them.
England were left with what captain Dylan Hartley had warned against: The ‘dirty feeling’ of being presented with the tournament trophy having lost the final game. However, they are rightfully champions, the only team to win four of five games, and the only team to record an away victory of merit (to Wales), this effectively deciding the tournament.
With the tournament over, it seems like a good time to pause, reflecting on where the team is placed. International rugby works to the four-year World Cup cycle, with the next featuring in Japan in 2019. Following defeat, Eddie Jones said “we are 14 months into a four-year project”. There is truth in this statement. However, I think England need to start seriously thinking about the next World Cup now if they have real ambitions of winning it.
Since he took over, Eddie Jones has fully underlined the depth of quality in English rugby — there is little dip in quality between the starting XV and the bench. This has made the difference in many of the victories Jones has presided over. Jones needs to consider who will form the XV for the World Cup, who will be in their prime come 2019. These considerations must be factored into the remaining games before the tournament.
In terms of personnel, I highly doubt the starting front three from this tournament, Joe Marler, Dylan Hartley and Dan Cole, will hold their positions in 2019. I assume, had he not been injured, Mako Vunipola would have started over Marler. This change must be instated come the next international game, when Vunipola is hopefully fit.
I believe Hartley’s place in the team is in severe danger. If he weren’t the captain, Jamie George would be starting hooker. George lacks the throwing accuracy of Hartley, while superseding him in his ability as a ball carrier. I believe George will be the starting hooker come 2019, and thus should be starting more games to gain valuable experience. The same can be said of Kyle Sinckler, the unexpectedly dynamic tighthead. While only 22, I foresee him playing a big role in 2019; like George, he should be given more game time in the one-off test matches coming up this autumn.
Maro Itoje worked well as a flanker, despite second row being his natural position. In 2019, I predict the soul of the pack to be made of George, Itoje and Billy Vunipola, all currently playing for Saracens. England are blessed with second rows right now: Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchberry were formidable this 6 Nations, while George Kruis, a star of 2016, missed the whole tournament with injury. Jones must persevere with a team selection that keeps Itoje, Lawes and Launchberry all starting, with Kruis on the bench.
Billy Vunipola is a certain starter at the number 8 position, and will be, bar something astonishing, one of the first names on the team sheet in 2019. There is uncertainty surrounding the rest of the back-row. Despite being 31, James Haskell has been magnificent since Jones took over; I doubt he can keep it up until 2019.
Up-and-coming flankers Teimana Harrison and Jack Clifford lack international pedigree at the moment — more game time will show if they are truly worthy. With the backs, I am happy with the current set-up. Bar Mike Brown (31), they are a young group who will have two more years of international experience come 2019. However, I would like to see Anthony Watson at full-back, allowing for Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly to play on the wings.
In the up-and-coming matches, team selection must show consideration for 2019, as well as getting wins. While the short-term impact of possible losses could be negative, it will undoubtedly benefit the long-term goal.
With Hartley’s place under heavy fire from Jamie George, captaincy will become an issue. Owen Farrell appears the logical candidate to fill the role, however, I fear the burden would affect his play in the short-term. Captaincy will be a conundrum for Jones in the time up to 2019.
The defeat against Ireland illustrated vulnerability in Jones’s team. England were unable to adapt to stultifying Irish tactics — there was no back-up plan. Against Italy, England were similarly flummoxed, although in that game superior quality eventually prevailed. Jones must work hard on England’s adaptability. Ireland have offered the template of how to beat Jones’s team, which opponents will likely attempt to emulate. England must have an answer in future.
A double Grand Slam would have been special but I think we will learn more about Jones’s team following the Ireland defeat. Too much winning is unhealthy, breeding complacency and often resulting in a façade of invincibility; defeat highlights flaws and aids development. The bitterness of a first defeat under Jones will soon fade. English rugby is in its best place since the dizzy heights of 2003. 2019 is now the aim for England.