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2nd December 2016

The best is yet to come

With the ending of the autumn internationals, Toby Webb evaluates the current position of the England men’s rugby team

Eddie Jones’ England went into the autumn series with a perfect record of nine out of nine wins. I predicted that they would emerge from the series with that perfect record still intact. While at the time of writing they are yet to play Australia, I predict they will have won the game; England’s XV is nearly back to full strength, with the likes of George Kruis back in the fray.

Following this set of games, a significant consideration is whether England have continued on their rapid upward trajectory of progress. Through the Six Nations and the Australia tour, England displayed a blistering rate of improvement: they were electric, playing an expansive, exciting style of rugby not witnessed under the previous regime.

However, in this series, England have honed this style. With excitement comes petulance; instead, this series England have looked to play with a level of maturity and calmness, while maintaining the style exhibited over the course of this year.

A crucial point in the series occurred at the very beginning, within the first ten minutes of the match against South Africa. England found themselves 6-0 down as a result of over-excitement, giving away several unnecessary penalties, ultimately, playing immature rugby.

While previous England sides might have wilted, gone chasing the game and subsequently being picked off, Jones’ side took a deep breath, dusted themselves off and took hold of the game. Securing a breakdown penalty, England acquired good field position and executed a crisp backs move to score.

This was a demonstration of maturity, cool minds in the face of adversity. From here, England looked the only winners, eventually coming out 37-21 victors. Defensively, England had many things to work on following the game: South Africa accumulated 21 points, both of their tries arising from disorganisation and lapses in concentration.

While England have started to illustrate a winning maturity, disorganisation and concentration in defense have arisen as a problem. Although the result against Fiji was never in doubt, Fiji scored 3 tries in a ten minute stint before half-time. A defensive stupor of this magnitude, against such lowly opposition, enrages a coach like Eddie Jones; one who strives for meticulous perfection in every aspect of the game. The 58-15 final result was deceptive. This was a disappointing game in terms of performance.

The match against Argentina took on a whole new meaning with Elliot Daly’s early red card. This was a perfect opportunity for England to practice how the team would react to this type of scenario in more significant circumstances, a crucial Six Nations or knock-out World Cup game for example. This was a further illustration of maturity.

England put many hours of tactical training into practice, adopting a reserved game plan that focused on minimal concession and the accumulation of points: the forwards were magnificent in the way they ground out valuable penalties for the team. Dylan Hartley, along with Owen Farrell, demonstrated their leadership qualities: Jones’ decision to give Hartley the captaincy has been truly vindicated this year.

This was also the best defensive performance of the series, England conceding only 14 points to an Argentina side that were quick and creative. While the South Africa victory was timely (England had not beaten them in ten years), this was by far the most satisfying, a performance as good in defence as in attack.

Injuries to England starters have forced Jones’ hand during this series, notable absentees including Mario Itoje, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell. It has led to the imposition of the likes of Daly and Semesa Rokoduguni; Daly’s ability to play a number of positions could be incredibly useful for England down the stretch.

Moreover, the strength in depth of the English talent pool has also been illustrated during this series. The ability to bring on the quality of Nathan Hughes, Henry Slade and Kyle Sinckler is a luxury for Jones, enabling the team to dominate the latter stages of games.

Jones is looking for sustainable improvement, not quick-fixes. He is slowly creating a team that has a solid, dependable and flexible style, in which players can be fitted in and out of. The initial part of this year saw the implantation of a deadly attacking style; the autumn has seen the development of game maturity. Eddie Jones has remained calm and focussed throughout: he thinks England still have a lot to improve on, especially defensively.

The 2017 Six Nations, is the next hurdle, away matches against Wales and Ireland standing as formidable examinations. Despite being 2nd in the world, this team is undoubtedly still a work in progress. In my eyes, they are on the cusp of being exceptional.

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