As Dylan Hartley hoisted the Six Nations trophy above his head in Dublin last week there was sure to be a tinge of regret amongst the obvious celebrations. Regret at a defeat that meant England returned home having failed to achieve their goal. A week on from securing back-to-back Six Nations titles, they came hunting a Grand Slam and a Triple Crown, yet left with neither.
Ever the master psychologist, even Sigmund Freud may have struggled to read Eddie Jones’ thoughts. Just as likely to hammer home the blunt message that his players had failed to achieve greatness, as he would be to speak of his immense pride at the journey his side have been on and how close they came to achieving their own little slice of history.
The old adage, ‘You learn more in defeat than in victories’ is one to be used with timing in mind. Delivered immediately after the Ireland match in an English pub or rugby club, and you could more than likely wake up the next morning with a black eye and sore head. Squeeze it in a few days later at work to an English supporter and it might be accepted with a little more understanding.
The truth is that Irish result does not change much. Sure, Ireland were good value for their 13-9 win, showing greater aggression, discipline and accuracy than their opponents. Yet no-one who has watched this year’s tournament could argue with the fact that England have been the best side and are deserved champions once again. Under the guidance of Australian coach Eddie Jones, England have made it their sole aim to be crowned world champions in Japan in 2019. With two Six Nations titles and a maiden test series victory in Australia already completed, they are well on track to achieve their goal of becoming the best in the world. However, Saturday’s defeat – Jones’ first as England coach – was a reminder that England are by no means the finished article and there is still plenty of work for Jones and his coaching staff to do.
With the Lions tour to New Zealand likely to see many of England’s first-choice players unavailable for the summer tour to Argentina, the trip to South America presents Jones with a chance to make the changes he feels are necessary to take England to the next level, and whilst England currently stand in the healthiest of positions amongst the home nations building towards the World Cup, there are still areas of Eddie Jones’ team where attention must be paid.
If England are to stand any chance of success at Japan 2019, coach Eddie Jones will need to have 100% faith in his captain to do the job. Although current captain Dylan Hartley has done a sterling job so far, the jury remains out on whether the Northampton hooker will lead his nation at the next World Cup. At the age of 31 and with younger rivals such as Jamie George, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Tommy Taylor snapping at his heels for the England No.2 jersey, it is no guarantee that Hartley will even be in the starting XV come the autumn never mind the World Cup in two years time. Hartley was the right man at the right time for Jones when he came in and whilst you can’t argue with a captain’s success rate that betters all of his recent predecessors, Hartley does not seem to carry the same influence as he did years ago. In this year’s Six Nations he was taken off before the hour in each of the five matches, being replaced by Jamie George on each occasion. Whilst a lack of match sharpness – due to a six-week ban picked up following a red card for Northampton – clearly was a reason why England’s captain was taken off early by Jones, the fact that he came off at times when matches were very much still in the balance, spoke volumes. Cardiff and Dublin in particular would have been chastening experiences, with the England hooker getting outplayed by opposite numbers Ken Owens and Rory Best respectively. With Jamie George a key member of a dominant Saracens side and quite possibly the form hooker in European rugby at the moment, many England fans feel it is time that George gets an opportunity from the start in place of the ageing Hartley.
In Owen Farrell as well, England have a man who looks increasingly ready to handle the pressure of captaining his country. Having developed into one of the best players in the world game, Farrell has not only become one of the first names on the England team-sheet but is arguably Eddie Jones’ most-trusted lieutenant out on the field. If Hartley’s impact diminishes as games wear on, the opposite could be said of Farrell with the Saracens man producing the key pass for Elliot Daly’s late winning try in Cardiff before nailing the subsequent conversion from out wide. A temperamental character in his early days, Farrell has matured a lot over recent years and having been made something of a scapegoat for England’s early World Cup exit in 2015, as a captain would have invaluable experience to lean on a group of players who at test level have yet to experience such disappointment, whilst at the age of 27 he should be at his peak come Japan 2019.
Should Jones decide that Hartley is not the man to captain England at the next World Cup, this summer’s tour may represent the best opportunity to make such a change and allow England’s new captain sufficient time to learn and develop in the role.
The Back Three
With the exception of the Calcutta Cup mauling England inflicted on Scotland in round four, Eddie Jones’ back division showed their class on too rare an occasion during this season’s championship. One positive to come out of the championship was the emergence of Wasps’ Elliot Daly. Jones’ decision to switch Daly to the wing rather than his familiar centre position caused a few raised eyebrows amongst rugby fans, however Daly has taken his chance with aplomb delivering a number of classy displays out wide to reinforce the view that his international future lies there. With Jack Nowell also impressing on the wing during the tournament and Bath’s Anthony Watson returning from injury towards the end of the campaign, England have three young attackers who look deadly with ball in hand.
Alongside them in the back three, Mike Brown’s future as England full-back has been one of the main talking points of England’s campaign. At 31 years of age, Brown’s best days are clearly behind him and despite being England’s first-choice full-back for the last four years, the Harlequins man has struggled to retain the form that saw him crowned Six Nations Player of the Tournament in 2014. Being made a vice-captain when Jones arrived as coach shows just how much respect the Australian has for the full-back. However, four into three clearly doesn’t go and with Daly, Nowell and Watson all under the age of 25 and able to cover the full-back position as well as wing, the chances of a 34-year-old Mike Brown starting at full-back in Japan look slim.
Despite all being good footballers, Elliot Daly’s kicking game makes him more suitable to a full-back role than Nowell and Watson, although the opportunity for the three of them to dove-tail together as a back three is a mouth-watering prospect for England fans looking ahead to the next World Cup. To do that though the three of them need to be given the opportunity to create an understanding as a back three over time and Jones must decide whether it is time to give a chance to the younger generation.
Lucky Number Seven
If it is one thing we have learnt from this year’s Six Nations, it is that the battle of the back-row is often where contests are won and lost. England may well have got out of jail in Cardiff despite the Welsh back-row dominating their opposite numbers, yet the same could not be said in Dublin. Much like the Welsh in round two, the Irish back-row helped create a platform to give their side an edge in the match, yet where Wales failed to make their superiority count, Ireland did prevailing 13-9 in a pulsating test encounter. This was no coincidence as throughout the tournament England struggled to gain dominance at the breakdown.
England’s struggles to find a genuine openside flanker have been well documented over the years, with a number of players not naturally suited to the role occupying the No.7 jersey. Throughout Stuart Lancaster’s reign, Harlequins’ Chris Robshaw captained the side from openside flanker when his best form for his club had often come with the number 6 on his back. Following the disastrous World Cup showing in 2015, Eddie Jones took the decision to revert Robshaw back to the No.6 jersey where he was clearly more effective. Yet once again with the absence of a natural 7 within the English game he decided on James Haskell playing the openside position despite the Wasps man – like Robshaw – being more familiar with playing on the blindside or at Number 8. In the short-term Jones seemed to have found a solution with England winning the Grand Slam and securing a 3-0 series whitewash against Australia, with Haskell playing a prominent role on the openside flank. Injury meant Haskell missed the start of this year’s Six Nations and in his place Jones decided to go with Northampton’s Tom Wood at No.7. The move proved to be unsuccessful with Wood struggling and a week later Harlequin Jack Clifford replaced Wood in the team to play Wales, with Haskell returning from injury to take a spot on the bench. In his first Six Nations start however, Clifford came up against two of the finest opensides in the game in Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric who perhaps unsurprisingly made him look like a fish out of water as the Welsh dominated at the breakdown. Haskell’s introduction in the second-half may have helped stem the tide with his physicality, yet there was no question that England were having problems finding the right balance in their back-row. Their defeat to Ireland once again highlighted this, and whilst the likes of Robshaw and Haskell have done a decent job of filling the position in the past, there is no arguing that their games are not suited to that of a modern openside.
As coach, Eddie Jones will know that for England to give themselves the best chance of success in Japan they will need to find a natural openside flanker in the mould of a Sam Warburton or Justin Tipuric. The signs are there to suggest Jones is ready to address the problem as well with young Sam Underhill moving to Bath from the Ospreys for next season. The 20-year-old has spent his time at the Welsh club learning his trade from one of the best No.7’s around in Tipuric and has developed into a fine operator at the breakdown, news which will be music to Jones’ ears in finding a solution to his openside conundrum. With that in mind it might not be long before Underhill receives an international call-up and with Matt Kvesic looking to reignite his international prospects by moving to Rob Baxter’s Exeter in the summer, come the autumn England may have two natural opensides competing week-in week-out in the Premiership. A thought that would very much please England’s head coach as Jones goes looking for one of the final pieces of his World Cup-jigsaw.