WHEN Eddie Jones clocked on as England coach, nearly three years ago now, he was quite adamant that the thing he wanted more than anything was an old style, domineering, bullying, no-nonsense England pack capable of intimidating the opposition.
He wanted England to revert to type and put some stick about. That was the cornerstone on which England would build and his atavistic sentiments seemed to strike a chord.
But here we are less than a year out form the World Cup and with a huge autumn series beckoning and I’d say that picking and galvanising such an England pack is still comfortably Jones’ big headache.
Regardless of which midfield combination they settle on and even after their wanton abandonment of such as Danny Cipriani and Christian Wade, England will field a backline capable of seriously damaging any side in the world.
It’s the England forwards that still concern me, a pack that often seem less than the sum of its parts. The England pack are not consistently bossing games, strangling the opposition and getting England on the front foot. And when they do win possession they are not ruthless enough, they don’t convert pressure into points.
If we revisit that excellent early encouraging run of success under Jones – 22 wins in 23 games – it wasn’t off the back of a bullying pack, it was a tenacious and clever England making the most of their chances and playing with the wounded pride and anger of a team that ‘bombed’ badly at RWC2015.
It was a superb bounce-back but despite their long unbeaten run England still seemed a bit brittle and vulnerable. It wasn’t necessarily the England Eddie Jones had in mind but it would do for starters.
There are extenuating circumstances. Courtney Lawes, George Kruis and Joe Launchbury are unquestionably class locks but when was the last time all three were at full bore at the same time enabling England to tap into that deep reservoir. All three have been under the knife and/or struggling with physical issues at various times so what looked, on paper, an area of huge strength for England wasn’t always quite what it seemed.
In the back row Billy Vunipola has suffered three arm fractures and hasn’t really been seen in his pomp for England since November 2016 which is a big loss.
Is it because opposition players are targeting the ball when trying to deal with him, going for the rip while a colleague attempts to slow him or is he carrying the ball awkwardly or leading too much with the forearm? Or has he just been incredibly unlucky? Answers – if you have any – on a postcard please to Mark McCall and Eddie Jones.
Nathan Hughes tends to be either injured or banned and let’s be truthful thus far has not looked the player for England that he promised to be when ripping up trees during his qualifying years at Wasps. Ben Morgan, another who encountered injury problems, was discarded too early although, hopefully, he will be given a chance again in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Chris Robshaw and James Haskell – yeomen Englishmen – have both been raging against the dying of the light while there is still no clear-cut No.1 choice at openside flanker. At least Maro Itoje, after seeming to pause for breath a little last season after his meteoric rise, is going great guns and must surely operate in the backrow where he can give England another lineout option.
In the front row Mako Vunipola is injured, Joe Marler has had enough of Test rugby and is off and Dan Cole is out of favour although, ironically, he produced his best and most disciplined performance in a while for Tigers against Scarlets last week.
Dylan Hartley meanwhile is on the comeback trail after injury and a 2017-18 season when he simply didn’t get enough miles on the clock at Saints and was regularly pulled off by England ten minutes after their 15 minute half-time break. I have never, ever understood that although many teams do it.
Jamie George is like a greyhound in the traps, Harry Williams might get a good run this autumn, ditto newly-qualified Michael Rhodes. England have options, they still have the makings of an outstanding pack but time is running out to, firstly, get the right combination on the pitch and then have them firing on all four.
The rugby world awaits with interest.
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