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Coach's corner: Who should be in Rennie's World Cup squad? And will Jones make it to the tournament?

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Expert
1st December, 2022
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There is plenty of interest around Randwick-man Eddie Jones’ situation with England after his worst season in terms of results: five wins, one draw and six defeats in 12 matches.

Sir Clive Woodward, who has not coached an international rugby side since the disastrous British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, seldom misses a chance to put the boot in, and he has led a chorus of dissident voices seeking Eddie’s removal:

“This was the worst week in English rugby history.

“The game in this country is a total shambles and defeat to a South Africa side without nine of its best players showed it.

“When are the leading figures at the RFU going to wake up and realise English rugby is in trouble? Everything is not OK. Eddie Jones will be allowed to carry on as he likes yet again.”

Neil Back rephrased Woodward’s comments neatly: “Eddie Jones was somehow allowed to perform a mass orchidectomy on [CEO Bill] Sweeney and the rest of the RFU shortly after the last World Cup.”

Every in-depth review of England’s poor performance generally comes to the same conclusion as the vast majority of such binder-busting enquiries – that somehow, ‘nobody, somebody and everybody’ is responsible. Charles Dickens would have noticed the lack of accountability immediately, were he still alive to see it, and jabbed an accusing finger in the direction of the RFU.

It is also reflected in the flawed thinking that somehow, ‘only the World Cup matters’. International teams can play between 50 and 60 matches over four-year cycle, but only a handful have any importance.

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“I really despise this ‘we are building for the World Cup rubbish’ that he [Eddie Jones] spins after every loss. Even if I love the Webb Ellis trophy, I wonder if the tournament actually harms the game more than it helps.” The Neutral View from Sweden

“What have England got to lose [by sacking Eddie Jones]? What has ‘Razor’ [Robertson] got to lose? [by taking the job]. If it didn’t work out, no one could blame Razor but if it did…he could write his own ticket.” Pom-in-Exile

For every player or coach, ‘the next’ is the most important thing. Winning matches is vital, and winning silverware even more so. Try telling those Ireland players and coaches who won a series for the first time in their history in New Zealand that it was not important; or those 30,000 Lions’ supporters who spend their life-savings to follow their team through thick and thin to Australia, South Africa and New Zealand that it doesn’t matter; or explaining to any Kiwi or South African rugby aficionado that the history between their countries is irrelevant. They will give you a very uncomplimentary reply indeed.

The truth is that the World Cup is less important, far less important than rugby tradition and historically-embedded rivalries. If a global season was set in stone and some form of annual Nation’s Cup introduced, the World Cup would probably fall back towards its true level as but one-of-many.

As it is, every loss can be conveniently be rationalised away as a ‘part-of-the-plan’, with fiendish strategies-yet-to-be-revealed before The Big One begins. If things go wrong before then, it is always ‘Nobody’s fault’.

Eddie’s England had a chance to redeem their crushing 2019 World Cup final loss at Twickenham last Saturday against their nemesis in Yokohama, the Springboks. That loss began at the scrum, and England picked what they believed were their two strongest front rows to do battle in West London, with premier prop Ellis Genge on the bench to combat the ‘bomb squad’.

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In the event, the humiliation at set-piece was amply repeated. Frans Malherbe won his battle against Mako Vunipola by three penalties to one with one extra free-kick thrown. Ironically, the one penalty he gave up was probably his most dominant scrum of the lot:

Big Frans drives low and hard to the inside and cartwheels Mako’s feet over his head. Even ex-Bath and England prop David Flatman was aghast in commentary that the penalty went in England’s favour. But the psychological trumps were all in South Africa’s hands after that, whatever Angus Gardner may have thought.

When the bench front rows entered the fray, the English props still had problems keeping their feet on the lush Twickenham turf:

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England kept their two strongest scrummaging props back for the second period, but the pair were no closer to resolving the set-piece puzzle from Yokohama. That is Will Stuart, struggling to find his feet against the redoubtable redhead, Steven Kitshoff.

With Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell having strung a few games together at 10 and 12 in 2022, surely we would also be able to observe some concrete improvements in their working relationship?

“England have to sort out who is playing at 9, 10 and 12. ‘Eddie fatigue’ has well and truly set in though.” Reds Harry

“I think he has acquiesced to the crowd with the selection of both Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith [together]. I don’t even think he believes in it, but I would much rather have Manu Tuilagi at number 12 with either Farrell or Smith. They just don’t gel.” Full Credit to the Boys

In fact, the same issues are still present, just as they have been from the start. However hard he tries, Owen Farrell simply cannot stop himself becoming the dominant partner of the couple. He touched the ball 13 times to Marcus’ eight at first or second receiver, as Smith struggled to find a pathway into the game:

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Farrell passes to Manu Tuilagi and cleans out over the top of him from lineout. Has the scene been set for Marcus Smith on second phase? Nope. Vunipola takes the ball on, and by the time the ball comes back to the lineout side on third phase, Smith has been overtaken by Freddie Steward and bypassed by Owen Farrell. It was a consistent theme:

Again, it is Faz-to-Manu on first phase with Smith over-running the play. By the time the sequence comes back to the lineout side, all of the English attackers are grouped in a 20-metre space on the right and Marcus is not ready to receive the pass from his scrum-half.

So the scrum didn’t improve, and the attack has yet to show any teeth. South Africa by way of contrast, have built on their known strengths and looked to expand the range of their play. Their coaches have shown some guts and stuck with Damian Willemse at number 10, while seeding in speedsters like Kurt-Lee Arendse around him:

“I always thought that when South Africa learned to use [their] black African speedsters to complement their ‘grunt’ forwards, they would be unstoppable. The first try was a thing of beauty – it reminded me of the All Blacks of a few years ago.” Frisky

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The Springboks are now capable of countering from their own end, and that is something that was beyond them in 2019:

Those first two breaks by Arendse come off an errant Marcus Smith kick, and an errant pass by the Quins man. The Boks even eschewed their automatic box kick exit to run the ball out from their own 22:

In all three examples, the triangle of Willemse, Arendse and Willie Le Roux are the key to success. That is what improvement really looks like: concrete instances of overcoming your limitations and avoiding their repetition. By that marker, South Africa are climbing the rungs of the ladder faster than England.

They even avoided the defensive mistakes made by New Zealand the week before when both sides dropped to 14 men, and that was another improvement:

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No two-man backfield, and no scrum-half defending behind the ruck here. Everyone is up in the line and pressurizing England into errors of their own.

*

Lots of questions are circling around Dave Rennie’s likely World Cup squad in 2023, with the rumour-mill suggesting that there are only a handful of spots still to be decided.

Adsa commented: “Where does Dave Rennie go from here? Some scribes suggest his World Cup squad would all be pencilled in? Does a good season of Super Rugby mean nothing? Is there no chance of a bolter getting on the plane to France? Given the poor overall results that were produced with the incumbents, I would hope our coach and squad aren’t resting on their laurels.”

Jeznez added quite sensibly, “I reckon the majority of positions have at least one selection spot wide open”, with Bobby adding “The real question will be around the ‘smokies’ and how many overseas players will be selected.”

As Coker rightly pointed out, “If any good has come out of the tour, it is the opportunities given to Frost and Nawaqanitawase, which would almost certainly not otherwise have happened.” They were indeed the two big tour discoveries, and now it is impossible to envisage a World Cup squad without them in it.

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So, let’s take a look at how the 33-man squad may look in 11 months’ time, starting with the front row. I suspect Dave Rennie will take five props: Allan Alaalatoa*, James Slipper*, Angus Bell* and Taniela Tupou* should all be certainties, and Rennie might want to add Pone Fa’amausili’s power to the mix. That would give some real size on the tight-head side, with both ‘Slips’ and ‘Triple A’ able to swap sides in an emergency.

They will also take three hookers, and here the door is wide open indeed. If he can respond to Darren Coleman’s disciplinary framework on and off the field, Tolu Latu* has the talent to be one, while Brandon Paenga-Amosa(O)* is playing some his best footy in France. He is the strongest scrumming hooker available and currently tops the league in takeaways at the breakdown, with 10 pilfers after ten rounds of the Top 14. I would take Queenslander Josh Nasser as the third hooker. Nasser was the outstanding rake in Australia when he went down injured mid-term in SRP 2022. He can scrum and he can play out wide constructively on attack.

Second row is a position of power with everyone available. Izack Rodda* (who led the strongest-performing lineout in Australia in SRP 2022), Will Skelton (O)* and Nick Frost* pick themselves. Then it is just a matter of sorting out the best fourth option among Matt Philip, Rory Arnold and Lukhan Salakaia-Loto. I will take Philip as he has led the lineout and knows the Wallaby systems better than Rory.

Behind them, Rob Valetini*, Michael Hooper*, Pete Samu* and Jed Holloway* all represent secure choices. That leaves a space each at number 6 and number 7. If he enjoys a strong domestic season in early 2023, I can see Tom Hooper pushing through on the blind-side, with an intriguing decision to be made between Charlie Gamble (if eligible) and Fraser McReight on the other. McReight is like-for-like with ‘Hoops’ but Gamble’s extra power and size offers a usable contrast at the spot.

In the backs, I reckon they’ll take three scrum-halves and two outside-halves. Nic White*, Tate McDermott*, Quade Cooper*(O) and Bernard Foley(O) are probably safe. I would take a punt on Issak Fines-Leleiwasa as the third number 9 as he can fill in at wing and maybe even at 10 in an emergency. Fines can be very dangerous in an open field in the last quarter. We only need three centres because of cover provided from the back three, and they will be Samu Kerevi(O)*, Len Ikitau* and Lalakai Foketi.

In the backfield, Marika Koroibete(O)*, Mark Nawaqanitawase*, Jordie Petaia*, Reece Hodge* and Tom Wright* are virtual certainties. Hodge can cover both centres and will be third-pick number 10, while both Petaia and Andrew Kellaway can play at 13. I’d add Luke Morahan(O) as the sixth warrior for his maturity and experience. He can play all three positions, he is tall and strong in the air and he could play a useful mentorship role for the younger players.

Starred players “*” represent the matchday 23 choices, “(O)” means an overseas pick.

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