By Jeremy Guscott
The England pack has shown an incredible drop-off between the intensity when Eddie Jones first came in as coach, with the Six Nations Grand Slam and a three-nil Australia series win in his first season, and the way they have played over the last 12 months.
During 2016 the forwards played rugby of a really good quality and were very competitive, especially on that Australian tour when they had to deal with the joint threat of Wallaby flankers David Pocock and Michael Hooper.
They had Billy Vunipola, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw combining well, and the second row of Maro Itoje and George Kruis on top of their game. In the front row they had Dan Cole scoring a try during the series, and Dylan Hartley as captain doing well at the set piece. He’s never been a big ball carrier but by getting the basics right he did his bit.
In defence they were combative and won the collisions, adopting that wolf pack mentality from Saracens. There was a real energy about England’s forward effort, with results coming from the quality of performance – and people talking seriously about the team being a credible force to take on New Zealand.
Now, one and a half years on, that conversation has turned with most predicting an almost certain New Zealand victory over England because of the decline in their forward play.
A stock-take after this summer’s South Africa tour sees Hartley and Cole being rested, Kruis having fallen off his unbelievable performances pre-the 2017 Lions tour, and Haskell left on the sidelines. Meanwhile, Billy Vunipola is out with injury again and struggling to regain form, and Robshaw is still trying hard but not having his early impact.
Itoje was being talked about as world-class a season ago, and although he’s intelligent off the field he has almost become a different player on it, giving away too many penalties. He used to make line-out steals and breakdown turnovers regularly, but that player has gone this season.
No-one appears to try harder than Robshaw, or work harder on his endurance, to make up for a shortfall in natural ability. You have always had players like him who make themselves competitive at elite level through incredible dedication.
The results of a rugby team are usually based on how a pack plays. The more dominant they are in key areas like the set piece and breakdown the more likely that team is to win.
There are anomalies sometimes, because in my era at Bath there were times when the backs lived off scraps and we still won more games than we lost because of the quality of our execution. You see it in the modern game when teams do not win territory and possession, but are incredibly clinical and score every time they get the ball.
These anomalies are not common, but they can happen. However, any back will tell you that it is much better to have a scrum that’s dominant at the set piece and at the breakdown, winning the collisions and the tackling contest.
At the set piece the good teams have at least one destructive scrummaging prop – usually a tight-head – and ideally a second row enforcer and two beasts in the back row who are destructive whether carrying the ball or hitting hard in defence.
Jones appeared to have that in 2016. At his best Billy Vunipola was winning those big arm-and-chest battles, but most of the England forwards were lacking in that department against the Springboks.
The breakdown two seasons ago was a challenge the England pack was up for, but if you fast forward to today that competitiveness is unrecognisable. Clearly they are not winning collisions, and that’s when it gets to be hard work.
It means the ball is so slow coming back – and in the recent series England made it worse because instead of kicking bad ball they insisted on running it.
England’s breakdown trouble is about deficiencies in body angles in contact and the ability to stay on your feet. The other big correction to be made is that England forwards are going into contact alone far too often and being isolated too easily.
That’s why Tom Curry should never be carrying the ball in contact. Instead, he should be supporting, tackling and linking – and being a nuisance over opposition ball by slowing it down. Having bulked up, that’s what Pocock is so good at for Australia, staying in position over the ball despite taking big hits from front five forwards.
Curry is learning that at the moment, but his lighter build suggests that England should be playing a far more fluid, faster game – whereas at first under Jones it was more of a power game.
England have been slow to adapt at the breakdown whereas other sides have found ways to be effective. Ireland play with a bigger ball-carrying, jackling openside like Dan Leavy, whereas the Scots have opted for a bit of a flyer in Hamish Watson, and the Welsh have good new all-rounders like Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins.
In the game now there are more carries and therefore more breakdowns, and England should also be good in that area, because it’s one of rugby’s basics – and yet they have been more badly affected than any other team.
That’s because Premiership coaches decided they wanted to play the breakdown in a particular way, with referees favouring the attacking side at the breakdown more than in any other country.
The idea that it is anyone else’s fault is a load of tosh, and if Premiership forwards are not jackling and competing they are being numpties because there is nothing to stop them doing so.
Good players will always compete, and with referees these days like talking rule-books it should be easy to work out when you can go in for the ball. So, if Jones is saying that his players don’t know the rules and cannot adapt, English rugby has only itself to blame, and it was shown up against Italy in 2017 in an embarrassing way.
Quite simply, Premiership clubs haven’t adapted. However, nothing stops you using your brain as a player – and we appear to have lost the ability of players also helping coaches to adapt.
The main weight of England struggling lies with the forwards. The fall-off in intensity started in the 2018 Six Nations when they were out-thought and outwitted. Scotland showed that the easiest way to unsettle England these days is to play at pace, whereas in 2003 they could play every type of game, quick, slow, power, fluid, it didn’t matter.
This England team like to play at a slower tempo with less intensity at the breakdown, and that’s why the conditions in Cape Town suited them. It is also why France bullied them in the Six Nations, and why even at Twickenham they struggled against Ireland.
They have not been helped this season by the lack of a big midfield ball-carrier like Ben Te’o or Manu Tuilagi to provide a focal point for the forwards by smashing over the gain-line, whereas Wales have Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies, Ireland Robbie Henshaw, Australia Samu Kerevi and New Zealand Sonny Bill Williams.
Having that big centre to crash through is traditionally England’s way, because a hard straight midfield runner concentrates the defence like nothing else. It is another important variation on how to get momentum.
You simply have to win your fair share of collisions at the breakdown, and, having thrived early on with Haskell as a back row carrier, Jones should have thought about replacing him with players like Exeter Chiefs pair Don Armand and Dave Ewers.
The worst thing is that England’s best forwards are not playing at their best, and it’s happened all at the same time. That is very rare.
At the same time there are signs that standards are slipping. For instance, Curry is a good player, but he’s not what Jonny Wilkinson or Owen Farrell were at 20, and nor does he have the support of a really powerful pack around him. So what if Curry made 20 tackles in the first Test? Excuse me, tackling is what a Test openside should be able to do in his sleep. It’s a given.
It is what else they do to make a contribution, whether stealing the ball, slowing it down, or linking for a try, that makes them stand out.
The England forwards managed to stop the rot with a win in Cape Town, but they should be honest about their performance against an inexperienced South Africa pack in which Franco Mostert is not the biggest lock, and nor is Bongi Mbonambi the biggest hooker.
They should acknowledge that where the South African forwards made an impact off the bench, England’s didn’t. Eddie Jones was at a loss to explain the first two Test defeats, but the answer was straightforward.
The England forwards lost the big collisions in the first two Tests, and it is time for them to take the mandatory summer five weeks off to recharge and get away from rugby completely. They’ve been punished and battered, and their clubs and country need them firing again.
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