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By Jeremy Guscott
England are deserved No.2 in the world after beating Argentina, Australia and Samoa. That’s because the Wallabies are the most recent form team, having played incredibly well to beat New Zealand.
England played some very smart rugby to defeat Australia last weekend, and if the All Blacks had scored some of those tries we’d be saying “brilliant” – so I’m not sure that we give due credit to England sometimes. If New Zealand had scored three tries in the last 11 minutes of the match after going full throttle throughout we’d be saying what fantastic stamina.
Eddie Jones is not developing the England skill set as much as he is their mindset. You cannot turn a Manu Tuilagi into a Sonny Bill Williams because they have their own unique styles, but what it is about is him completing the selection puzzle in terms of selecting the right players at the right time.
In the front row, for instance, the England coach is still looking for the replacement for Dan Cole, but elsewhere he’s got a stack of loose-heads, as well as a bucket full of second rows, plus two No.8s in Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola.
Chris Robshaw is the great stayer at flanker, although there are still question marks there, and Jones could find a solution with the English-eligible Kiwi blindside/No.8 Brad Shields joining Wasps. Sam Simmonds is also a possibility at openside, because speed in the back row is so important.
At 10 –12 –13 Jones has the options presented by George Ford, Owen Farrell, Henry Slade, Alex Lozowski, Tuilagi, Ben Te’o, and Jonathan Joseph, with Piers Francis as an outsider. Of those players the ones who have shown genuine international class so far are Farrell, Ford, Tuilagi, Te’o and Joseph – although Joseph has lost his attacking mojo recently, and Jones has told him to go looking for the ball more.
Farrell has been the most improved player in the England side if you take it from Stuart Lancaster’s time as coach through to now. He improves every season, and his 10 –12 pairing with Ford is a good one. However, what England lack at the moment is the relief provided by having a strong midfield carrier like Tuilagi or Te’o.
Bringing a big winger up the middle is a potential solution, but Jones has more of the rapier on the wings than the bludgeon. The only wing who provides a bit of both is Semesa Rokoduguni – and that’s why Jones needs a big carrier in midfield.
I’ve said before that Te’o can be that man 12, or 13 if the England coach decides to have either Farrell, Lozowski or Slade at inside-centre. The only issue with that is that 13 is the key to the defensive set out on the edges, which is why a clever defender like Ryan Crotty is so crucial to New Zealand.
Joseph is similarly effective at 13 for England because not many sides get inside or around Joseph. He’s pretty good at not getting isolated and allowing the three-on-two that all teams are looking for on the outside.
Midfield is still the area, however, where England are not entirely settled. Even with Ford, Farrell and Joseph there is a sense it is not yet the complete package.
While overall England are in a superb place and have backs like Farrell and Anthony Watson who have settled into international rugby very quickly – just as Tuilagi and Te’o have – you also have those like Slade who have still got it to prove.
Going into the build=up to the Six Nations the big area for improvement for Jones is attack, because England do not have the options they need. At the moment their attack is a bit ‘old’ New Zealand, where they are relying on line-speed to force errors and then counter-attack.
Mike Brown is still in pole position at full-back, but Anthony Watson is mounting a serious challenge. Watson’s pace can provide that ability to break the defensive line in an instant, and then he’s gone – and Elliot Daly has that same ability. For me, Daly is “rugby clever” because he provides options in all parts of the back three, as well as 13.
Brown is superb in the air, but he still has to improve his linking when it comes to making the final pass. He has it in him because in the early days of his international career he was known more for counter-attack and a great left boot – but now the counter-attacking element is not so prominent.
However, there is still a question mark at 11 –14 –15, and with Jack Nowell, Jonny May, Rokoduguni, Daly, Watson and Brown, there are six players chasing three positions.
There has been plenty of comment about Dylan Hartley’s captaincy recently. Hartley is very good at the set-piece, and has become a big part of the glue of this England side. Sometimes, from the outside, you don’t realise the importance on the inside of seasoned, hardened internationals like Hartley, Robshaw and Brown.
You cannot have a complete team of novices, and while Jones will not have been sure of his 2, 6, 7, and possibly 15, when he came in, apart from James Haskell – who he’s let go for the moment – the rest look as if they are on for a plane ticket to Tokyo in 2019.
Over the next two years this England team have to go beyond employing quick line-speed as the building block for their attack. The next step is to back your speed and skill from the set piece, as New Zealand did by giving Beauden Barrett space against Scotland.
However, New Zealand have lost games this season – including almost being beaten by Scotland – and it is clear that Australia, England and Ireland are all now at the top table with them.
The likelihood is that England and Ireland will be heading the chase for the Six Nations title, and I expect England to put the emphasis on trying to score tries from first and second phase.
If they solve that problem then you could see them starting to get towards having seven backs who are punched-in for the World Cup. Whether it’s Ford or Farrell at fly-half, the key component for any backline is cohesion and fluidity.
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