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Will England rule the world in 2019?

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Expert
12th February, 2019
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Even back in 2003, it was the simplest of questions. When asked who they wanted to win the World Cup if not Australia, Wallabies captain George Gregan and winger Joe Roff looked at each other knowingly for a moment.

In reply, they chimed in unison: “Anyone but England.”

All Blacks outside-half Andrew Mehrtens once described England famously as “pricks to lose to”, and elaborated on that in a 2014 article.

“That was the sort of feeling they used to engender in the All Blacks.

“In my day England were the one team we hated to lose to, and it was a powerful motivator…

“When I came into the All Blacks in 1995 a lot of that feeling was generated from guys who had been in England in 1993 when we lost 15-9…

“There was definitely a feeling among the All Blacks who played that day that there had been an element of putting the colonials back in their place.

“That came more from external forces around the team, than from within, but it didn’t alter the perception.

“In New Zealand, rugby is the game for the people, whereas in the UK it’s very much a game for the ‘elite’.

“That runs against our New Zealand ethos. We see ourselves as egalitarian, and anything that smacks of class distinction we bridle at.”

Mils Muliaina added that even after some New Zealand victories at Twickenham, “when you sit through the after-match speeches, you often feel you have lost given some of the things that are said! You don’t want to be on the losing side.”

On the long walk down the Chertsey Road to Twickenham stadium, you begin to understand why. The grassy verges on either side of the road are marked ‘reserved’ on a fine day. Public access is by invitation only.

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You will see large vans unpacking long cherrywood tables with linen overlays, with minions busily setting tall champagne flutes and silver cutlery for the arrival of their ‘Lords and Ladies’. In the west car park, the back doors of Range Rovers open to unfold gourmet picnics – the gastronomic equivalent of Aladdin’s cave.

In contrast to Scotland, Ireland or Wales, where the game belongs firmly to the common man, the sense of social occasion at Twickenham is vastly different.

In the press at the bars before and after the match in Cardiff or Dublin, you are simply ‘one of many’, and the egalitarian feeling Andrew Mehrtens describes is everywhere around you.

At the 2005 Grand Slam match between Ireland and Wales, an Irishman I’d never met before bought me six pints of the black stuff because he saw that I’d never make it to the front of the line in time for the opening whistle.

Try sharing a pannikin of caviar or a bottle of Bolly at Twickenham, and you will find neither givers nor takers unless you are already a member of the club. It is a place that tends to reinforce class structure for the day, rather than dissolve it.

The atmosphere is hierarchical, feudal even. If the opponent has the temerity to win the match, the revolt will only be temporary. The English right to rule will be reasserted in due course.

Perhaps that is why ‘Anyone but England’ has become the common refrain for France and all of the Celtic countries competing in the Six Nations, just as it has for teams from the southern hemisphere.

Eddie Jones, the England head coach, looks on

Eddie Jones’ England have a target on their backs. (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

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In ten days, Ireland and Scotland will be rooting for Warren Gatland’s Wales when they do battle with Eddie Jones’ England at the Principality Stadium.

Jones has already tried to install Wales as the favourites, proclaiming with more than a hint of sarcasm, “We’re playing the greatest Welsh side ever”.

But it is a futile gesture, and nobody is buying Eddie’s snake oil. Nothing can shake England’s historical sense of entitlement and expectation, especially on the back of a couple of handy wins against Ireland and France.

England’s resurgence since the second half of 2018 has been based on a return to the essentials of their long unbeaten run in 2016-17 – aggression in defence and excellence in the kicking game.

That kicking game is, if anything, even better than it was, with the inclusion of two natural left-footers at 13 (Henry Slade) and 15 (Elliott Daly) meaning they can now cover the whole width of the field.

England kicked France to death at Twickenham – though not in the ‘kick and clap’ style of yore. Their effort was mightily assisted by a brain-fade from the French selectors, who picked two centres on the wings, and a winger at fullback.

Following hard on the heels of the selection of Robbie Henshaw at 15 for Ireland, Eddie Jones has probably been unable to believe his luck at some of the inviting backfield targets presented to the England kicking game in the first two rounds of the tournament.

Jonny May

Jonny May has been on fire for England lately. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

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For the most part, England chose to kick towards Jonny May’s side, and May has been one of England rugby’s true good news stories over the past few years. At the Gloucester club, he played a lot of his rugby at fullback and has improved his kick-chase skills to the point where he is England’s most potent weapon.

He is the most accurate competitor in the air on shorter kicks, and his speed is always a threat in behind when the defensive backfield begins to empty. May has risen to the very top of a hotly contested pile in the England back three, and he deserves to savour every drop of his success. He has made himself into one of the best in the world.

England kicked for May to chase on ten occasions during the game and achieved 80 per cent positive outcomes – an impressive return. They scored two tries directly, forced two five-metre lineouts on their throw (one of which produced another try) and generated another three turnovers. Who says the kicking game is not an offensive weapon?

On England’s very first kick return of the game, Elliott Daly made a break and automatically put the kick through for May to chase:

Both Kyle Sinckler and Owen Farrell authored blocks of which any American football fullback would have been proud:

england illegal block

england illegal block

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That gave Daly the space to release May out wide, galloping past French number 14 Damien Penaud and number 9 Morgan Parra as if both were stuck in the mud of another era.

The pressure on the space behind Penaud was intense and consistent throughout the game:

The first kick set up a five-metre position from which England scored on their very next possession, the second gave them another prime throw to a lineout close to the French goal-line.

Those clips also illustrate another questionable facet of the French backfield defence which England were able to target successfully. France like to drop their scrum half, Parra, into the backfield zone whenever possible, even in situations high upfield when he has a lot of ground to cover.

I examined some of the drawbacks of this policy in relation to Nathan Grey’s defensive pattern against Argentina in last year’s Rugby Championship.

Parra, like Will Genia, was not an effective contributor from the defensive fullback position:

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In the first instance, he lacked the strength to stand up under May’s challenge and was driven into touch for a lineout turnover; in the second, he had little presence under the high ball and that left an empty backfield on next phase for May’s second try.

Fullback Yoann Huget can be seen looking around in shock at the lack of cover in the backfield as May runs through to touch down the ball with no Frenchman in sight, and it wasn’t the only time that aspect of the French defence broke down completely:

Three English chasers closest to the ball as Ben Youngs put a clever kick down the middle of the field told all of the story, with any sense of co-ordination between Huget, Parra and the two wingers entirely absent. England scored on the next play, and the game was over as a contest by half-time.

As a result, England did not need to take any risks on attack to win the match, their aggressive defence and kicking game did all the work for them:

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Slade intercepted the ball, kicked on for Chris Ashton to chase, and Ashton was brought down without the ball by left winger Gael Fickou. Penalty try to England and a yellow card for Fickou, completing a miserable afternoon for the French backfield.

Summary
Whatever Eddie Jones says, English Grand Slam fever will only build as the real ‘le Crunch’ in Cardiff approaches. England will be firm favourites because of the unconscious expectation they will continue to lord it over its neighbours and former colonies. That is built into the English psyche.

On the other hand, Wales will be able to enter the game with relatively little pressure on them, having won both of their first two away games despite playing only one half of decent football out of four.

In order to win, they will have to neutralise England’s kicking game and especially the pressure their visitors will try to bring down the right side of the Welsh backfield.

In a broader spectrum, the English matches against France and Ireland have reinforced the importance of the kicking game (and defence to it) as a powerful offensive weapon at the professional level.

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If Australia wish to make progress in 2019, they cannot do without one on attack, and like France they may have to rethink a defensive pattern which requires Will Genia to play as the spare man at the back in upfield positions.

If neither the All Blacks nor the Wallabies can find that point of all-round balance, they may be forced to endure the unthinkable – an England World Cup victory, and four more years of colonial snobbery.