It is a strange time to be living in the UK.
The streets are emptying, day and night, just as the shops are filling up. All major sporting gatherings are rightly either postponed or cancelled completely.
Normal routine has turned on its head as coronavirus bites deeper into the fabric of everyday life.
The sense of oddity extended to some of the impressions, both visual and verbal, in the build-up to the start of the 2020 Six Nations.
Before England played France in the first round, Eddie Jones was looking very smart in his suit and tie. He was bumptious, upbeat and typically full of bravado in his comments:
“It’s a very exciting [England] squad. I think we’ve got 22 of the 31 that went to the World Cup, and we’ve added another eight or nine who have the potential to become great players… It has the potential to be the best team in the world, which is what we want to be.
“We set out four years ago to be the best team in the world, and [only] missed out at the World Cup final. We came second, which was disappointing, but now we have another opportunity to become the best team in the world.”
He paused before adding, with a suitably dramatic flourish:
“We also want to be the greatest team the game of rugby’s ever seen. We want to set ourselves high, we want to see how we can extend ourselves and see how far this team can go. It’s still a young team and that’s the fantastic thing about it.”
Eddie Jones repeated that big statement no less than six times in two separate pressers. It may have been media hype for the tournament to come, but it also barely concealed the exasperated sense of a major opportunity lost. England had played a goodly portion of the rugby worth watching, especially in the knockout stages of the 2019 World Cup, but they lost their way in the match that counted the most.
As if to reinforce the point, Jones added, “You can win grand slams without playing great rugby – as you can a World Cup.”
The irresistible onward and upward curve in the fortunes of the England rugby team under Eddie Jones is one projection that ought to be treated with a large and healthy dose of scepticism.
Well before 2011, Stuart Lancaster and Kevin Bowring had already anticipated that England would reach a natural peak at the 2019 World Cup in their planning at the RFU, when Lancaster was the head of elite player development and Bowring his overseer.
The basis for their prediction was the fund of young players being produced by the under 20s side. England reached the final of the competition in 2011 (losing to the Junior All Blacks in the final) then won the tournament in three out of the next five years.
Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola all arrived up front between 2011 and 2014, and George Ford, Owen Farrell, Elliott Daly, Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Antony Watson and Jack Nowell behind. All are now core players in Eddie’s new-model England.
The real question is whether improvements with the current group of England players will be as dramatic as Eddie Jones says they will be.
Eddie will have to go some to achieve the kind of win ratio he achieved when he first took over as head coach of England. Inheriting a readymade squad from Lancaster, he reeled off 17 successive wins before England were turned over by Ireland at the end of the 2017 Six Nations.
Eddie had won 24 out of 25 before the wheels came off comprehensively in the following season. They lost the last three games of the 2018 Six Nations against Scotland, France and Ireland (again), then they dropped the first two Test matches against Rassie Erasmus’s new Springboks in their summer tour of the Republic.
It was then, and only then, that the distinctive character of Eddie Jones’ version of England truly emerged. England’s win rate has dropped back to 66 per cent in the 31 matches since the beginning of 2018, and their losses, or relative failures, have begun to follow a definite pattern:
|South Africa||9.6.2018||L 39-42||24-3 @20’|
|South Africa||16.6.2018||L 12-23||12-0 @23’|
|New Zealand||10.11.2018||L 15-16||15-0 @24’|
|Wales||23.2.2019||L 13-21||10-3 @26’|
|Scotland||16.3.2019||D 38-38||31-0 @30’|
|Wales||7.3.2020||W 33-30||17-6 @34’|
England won the early phase of these games (typically up until the half-hour mark) by a combined score of 109 points to 12, scoring 14 tries to none by their opponents.
In the last hour, they lost by a combined score of 41 points to 158, conceding 19 tries in the process.
This was never the case on England’s long winning run in 2016-2017. In the 2016 Test series against the Wallabies, for example, England came back from deficits at the half-hour mark to win both the first and third matches.
Something clearly changed in the psychological dynamic of the England side after that five-match losing run in the first half of 2018. It could be described as the kind of shift which occurs between a self-reliant group of improvisers, and a team which has become more dependent on the answers provided by pre-game planning.
In the only other two games where England have struggled in recent times, they lost to South Africa in the World Cup final in a game which they were losing 12-6 at the break, and in the current Six Nations to France, where they were 17 points down at the end of the first quarter. In neither game were England able to score a try early on.
It is impossible to say, maybe even for those involved, whether more emphasis on the gameplan was imposed from above by the coaching staff or whether it was solicited, consciously or unconsciously by the players.
But the outcome has been the same – an England team which can play irresistibly high-quality rugby in the first 30 minutes but struggles to adapt when the scores they expect are denied them, or the opponent proves they are good enough to stay in the game beyond that high watermark.
When England do score quickly, it is often very, very early on in the game. In the World Cup semi-final versus the All Blacks, they scored after a couple of minutes, from their very first lineout of the game.
This was a repeat of the encounter between the same two teams at Twickenham the previous year, where England had scored on their first set-piece possession from a scrum.
After five drive phases into midfield, England flipped over the joker from their pre-match preparation:
At first glance, it looks like the New Zealand defenders have simply failed to count numbers correctly out to Chris Ashton’s wing. On closer inspection, it turns out they were drawn out of position by England’s clever off-the-ball movement.
A couple of seconds before the critical play, the two widest New Zealand defenders (Rieko Ioane, with Damian McKenzie in the square behind him) are in good position on the 15-metre line.
The key is that number 10 Owen Farrell, number 11 Jonny May and number 12 Henry Slade are already beginning to look back towards the left side of the field.
The shot from behind the posts illustrates how their movement decoys both McKenzie and Ioane out of position on the strike phase:
All three English backs show motion towards the left, and that pulls McKenzie back towards the posts and Ioane further infield. The pass from scrumhalf Ben Youngs to Ashton gives the England winger just enough space to make it to the corner.
England’s success in the first quarter has been founded on their ability to identify backfield defenders and influence their position on the field. Here is an example from their Six Nations match against Ireland:
England show their number 10, George Ford, to their left side, and they have a couple of forwards (George Kruis and Joe Marler) running across the field in the same direction to reinforce the deception. Ireland fullback Jordan Larmour moves out to mirror Ford, whom he expects to receive the ball.
The killer play again comes off Youngs, and it turns out that Ford is not going to be the receiver of a pass after all, but the main chaser of a kick to the ‘wrong’ side of the field.
England’s knack for manipulating the backfield defence was also at the heart of the first try against Wales, in the most recent round of the Six Nations:
The play is set up off a fake lineout drive with Youngs moving into first receiver, but the underlying idea is to set up blindside winger Anthony Watson in a one-on-one with Wales halfback Tomos Williams:
With all of the Wales forwards not already bound into the maul are following Youngs into midfield, it gives Watson the space to use his twinkling Twickenham feet against Williams:
All eyes are on Youngs, and an eight-metre gap has been levered open between the first open-field defender (Wales number 3 Dillon Lewis) and the forward inside him (number 5 Alun-Wyn Jones, with his head in the maul) for Watson to work his magic on a wrong-footed Williams.
The UK is in the grip of a powerful virus, and it may be months before the remaining fixtures in the 2020 Six Nations can be completed. Eddie Jones will share the sense of dissatisfaction that all sporting followers will feel about that. In reality, his unspoken post-World Cup disquiet may have deeper roots.
On the one hand, it is only four short months since England reached a World Cup final while producing one of their finest performances in recent memory (against the All Blacks) to get there.
But the pattern of performances has shown that Eddie’s stated ambitions for his England to become the greatest rugby team ever are wide of the mark, given the current state of negotiations. England are probably less self-reliant and less player-empowered now than they were back in 2016-17.
Back then, England found a way to win games they might easily have lost. Now, they find ways to lose games that look completely won after half an hour or so of finely tuned attacking play.
England are lethal when their plans (and the minds executing them) are clear. That is what happens early in the game. When the fog of war descends, and the process becomes one of leadership, adaptation and improvisation, they can struggle. That is what happens in the last hour.
Opponents who either withstand the early onslaught or pre-empt it with scores of their own know they can beat the men in white by dragging them into the misty uncertainties of the later melee.
England will continue to win most of their matches. But despite the success of Eddie Jones, the split persona of English rugby – the handling of the transition between structured and unstructured parts of game, both mentally and physically – remains no closer to a solution. And that gives hope to every other rugby nation on the face of the planet.