Former England rugby union coach Sir Clive Woodward has had a lot to say after England’s poor Six Nations campaign came to an end this weekend. Looking to the future when talking to the BBC he said, “If you have got any chance of England doing anything at the World Cup you have got to be looking at winning those games in South Africa.”
However, he called upon current coach Eddie Jones to forget about the next Rugby World Cup and instead focus on the present and try to find their previous winning form after they finished fifth in the Six Nations.
'This team is still going to get better, there's no doubt about that'
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 18, 2018
Jones remained confident throughout the Six Nations, he warned and predicted that the team would suffer from a slump but said that it is part of their journey. He claims that the team have made off-field improvements. However, as Woodward pointed out, “If the All Blacks lost three games in a row, they wouldn’t be going, ‘Guys, just calm down, it’s fine, we will learn the right lessons’.”
New Zealand haven’t lost three Tests in a row since August 1998, six months before Marcus Smith, the apprentice fly-half was born. Since then, the world’s best team has not accepted such a poor run of results.
Nonetheless, Woodward, the man who led England to the 2003 World Cup and defeated Jones in the final, thinks that it shouldn’t all be panic. While he said that England is “staring down the barrel” and he wonders why captain Dylan Hartley is often taken off the pitch after about fifty minutes, he sees some reasons for positivity, “We have the players and I am a big fan of Eddie. I just think they have run out of steam a bit here.”
The ‘steam’ he speaks of can be viewed by literally and metaphorically. The player Maro Itoje is, according to Jones, suffering from “second-season syndrome”, however, he looks exhausted. The only players to come out of the campaign with their reputations enhanced are Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and James Haskell. It is also being said that those who were absent have also had their importance underlined as the team struggled without players such as Billy Vunipola and Ben Youngs.
HIGHLIGHTS from England U20s' 48-15 victory over Ireland on Friday night. pic.twitter.com/gbmu4V8eAx
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 17, 2018
In many ways it seems that England are paying the price for not having central contracts. Ireland’s British & Irish Lions team looked rested and eager to go at Twickenham on Saturday while England’s players looked exhausted. Something that is not surprising when one considers the extremely tough schedule they have combining club duties with country duties.
This is not Jones’ responsibility to fix, he can only do what he can in the limited time that he has with the players. However, he can rest some of the players on their three Test tour of South Africa and choose to focus on the long-term while accepting some disappointment in the short.
Some commentators have been pointing out various signs of mental fatigue in the team such as kicks to touch not being as aggressive as they should be, marks not being quite on target so that players had to break stride, and there is also the faltering driving lineout. These are all little things, but they add up to show tiredness and the team pays the price. However, with some rest most of these issues can be solved.
Therefore, Jones’ next task when he goes back to work and starts planning for the trip to South Africa, is to sort out the leadership density in the team, the breakdown, the selection and England’s discipline.
Jones has said that at present the game doesn’t love England, for instance Jacob Stockdale’s try permitted by the two-metre extension to the dead ball area requested by the England coach. However, the team need to try and turn those bounces of the ball back in their favour and rediscover the confidence that they showed last year.
As the player Chris Robshaw said, “Confidence is such a massive thing in sport. I wouldn’t say we lack confidence but we probably don’t have that swagger we had two years ago. We need to find a way to get that back.”
Sorting out discipline and the breakdown is the place to start and while Robshaw believes that it may take until the World Cup to fully sort out the problems, there were signs of improvement against Ireland. The discipline should correct itself, perhaps as soon as the squad has had some rest. These are all small improvements, but they could add up to a huge change when the team head to South Africa.
The issues with leadership density are only clear within the boundaries of the England team. The roots of the problems are an underlying issue in English rugby, possibly from the way that the players are protected in the academy or over-coaching. Jones has the ability to bring out the players’ potential here and player Danny Care has given an interesting insight into what is happening behind the scenes.
“There is only so much the coaches can do,” Care said. “It is up to the players at the end of the day. We are trying to work on ways to develop our game to help the team. It is taking more control, reacting to events, us dictating what is happening rather than being dictated to.”
The team has a number of players who have captioned their club teams, such as Farrell, George Ford, Hartley, Haskell, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Care and Joe Marler. However, it is now time for the next generation, the English equivalent of players such as Dan Leavy, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Fulrong, to make their marks.
The next major issue will be selection for the South Africa tour. Jones will be hoping that Billy Vunipola will be available and that Manu Tuilagi will have returned to fitness. He was without five back rows for the final Six Nations Test against Ireland, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry, Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. Hopefully some of them will be available for the upcoming tour in June. There are other options available to Jones, but he has to find a way to balance developing depth and talent and securing results.
The team’s attack also needs some work. This should improve itself as players are able to return, however, England also need to find a way to get the best out of the options they have available. Daly was repeatedly searching for the ball in the match with Ireland, rather than being naturally included. Both Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o failed to exert the influence expected of them during the Six Nations. Jones thoughts on this area are not yet known, but whatever he decides, he needs to ensure that there is some improvement.
Ahead of the start of the Six Nations Jones said, “If you think you are in a good place… that’s probably the time to start worrying.” His words turned out to be prophetic and surely the past few weeks will have highlighted to Jones that it is now time for him to pull things together and do some serious work.
Care said, “We are a team that in the last couple of years hasn’t had to handle losing. It has all been quite rosy and we have got all the 50-50 decisions and bounces of the ball. That is what happens when you are riding the wave. Now we are on the other side of it. We have full confidence that we will bounce back from this.”
Jones and the team will be fully aware of what they need to do next. The rest of the teams in the Six Nations have taken important strides forwards. England has time to do the same ahead of the World Cup, but the process needs to start in South Africa. Fans can expect to see some major changes from Jones and the team.
“Rugby is like a rollercoaster,” Haskell said. “You have those amazing moments. At the moment we are at the bottom of the roller coaster and it is not going according to plan. You have to keep your head and understand that this period is all about learning and it is a team that can come out of a period like this, learn, identify, stick together and become stronger.”
The South Africa tour starts on June 9th in Johannesburg. They then play against on June 16th in Bloemfontein before ending the tour in Cape Town on June 23rd. There is plenty of time between now and then and all eyes are sure to be on Jones over the next two months as he makes his preparations.