Relentless, ruthless and focused on the result: how England can bounce back | England rugby union team
In many ways England would prefer to be playing Ireland or Wales this week, the kind of fixture that demands a performance and an emotional buy-in that can be hard to manufacture. They shouldn’t have a problem with the latter given the backlash from the Scotland defeat last Saturday but all eyes fall on a team’s performance when the result is not in jeopardy and there is considerable expectation on England to deliver against Italy.
England supporters can be quite hard to please. When the team is winning they’ll look at the performance and when they’re performing they’ll look at the results. But that is the expectation that comes with playing for England. The grand slam – which I felt was a real opportunity for this side to demonstrate their progress – has gone, so for the rest of the tournament the fundamental thing is to prove they are evolving as a team. Two trophies last year and consistency of results may have papered over the cracks a little bit so from now on we need to see signs of evolution.
That starts against Italy with what should be a relentless performance for 80 minutes. I want to see variation. I want to see a penalty try under the sticks, a kick to the corner and driving maul for another, a counterattacking classic for another. It is a rare luxury at international level to play a Test match in which there is little doubt about the result so England must really push themselves. I expect to see total control – in a way similar to Ireland in the autumn in that the result was never in doubt throughout – but I want to see England dictating the pace of the game.
Owen Farrell has said the Scotland defeat should “light a fire”, Eddie Jones has said to forget the result but remember the feeling and they’ve been talking for a while about working on the detail of the attack. I want to see those words manifesting in a performance England can be proud of.
The performance against Scotland would have led to far greater introspection than usual, which in turns gives potential to grow. If you look at this team there is a huge level of growth, I don’t think we’ve seen them play to their potential and that’s a good thing. The problem is there are fewer than 30 games until the World Cup and this is a very important year for the team’s development. If the Lions tour goes ahead there will be senior players absent and the opportunity to bring in some new ones. I’d imagine that at the back end of this year we will see some of those new players bedding in and being a firm part of Eddie’s plans.
In the meantime, this is a team picked with the rest of the championship in mind. I’d be disappointed if it was purely a selection for Italy but Eddie knows he needs this group of players to find cohesion with Wales, France and Ireland on the horizon.
With George Ford coming back in we know what this backline is capable of and we cannot see the outside backs being so redundant again. We can always come back to the fact that Manu Tuilagi is not there and England just do not have a replacement in the way the All Blacks could bring in Sonny Bill Williams for Ma’a Nonu so Ford, Farrell and co must continue to work at ways to attack without that threat. They cannot go away from their identity – which is a pitfall given the public outcry over how they are performing – but they must find a way to bring Henry Slade, Jonny May and Anthony Watson into the game more.
For those supporters disappointed that neither Harry Randall nor Paolo Odogwu is in the squad, and Jack Willis, Ben Earl and Max Malins are only on the bench, I would urge patience. The Six Nations isn’t really a tournament for development, for blooding young players, it’s about winning matches.
Assuming the Lions tour goes ahead this will be a critical year for England’s development and by late autumn we will really have a sense of which of those younger, less experienced players are bedding themselves into the side. The summer will play a large part in that – I use the example of Tom Curry in Argentina in 2017 – and someone like Earl could even find himself in a leadership role on England’s summer tour this year, again assuming it goes ahead.
Before that, however, it’s worth keeping an eye on Earl this weekend. I couldn’t help but notice England have gone for a 6-2 bench which is a tactic more often employed if you’re playing someone like South Africa, or in a torrential downpour. That makes me think it may just be time for Eddie to show us what he means when he talks about hybrid players and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Earl in the No 12 role.
I don’t mean that he’s going to come on for Farrell but, at an attacking lineout, we may well see him on the crash ball with Ford in the five-metre channel. That’s the kind of creativity I want from England. I want them to be ruthless and want to see them playing with the freedom and the expression that was all too absent against Scotland.