This is a battle I’ve been looking forward to for a while.
The title question is one that has been on the minds of quite a few Kiwis I’ve talked too, especially at my club. So I’d like to talk about the place that England are at right now, and whether they’re at a point that they can trouble the All Blacks come that much-awaited game in 2018. November 10th 2018, Twickenham, London for those of you who have missed this news.
The spark that started this England resurgence, has come down to one key factor.
What I’m about to say is controversial, but I’m hoping understandable.
I’m glad we were kicked out of the World Cup. Stuart Lancaster is a good man and a great identifier of talent. He should also be given credit for setting up the pathways that are now showing so much success in the U20’s arena. This passed over to the senior team; the mainstay of his team are the players now driving England’s current resurgence. However; with the greatest respect, he did not have the experience to deal with the talent and take this team to the next level. Jones, with all his experience and no-nonsense approach, is the man for the job.
He has brought in a hard work ethic, a departure from the soft approach of Lancaster’s regime. He also brought in grand ideas about where this team can go and inspired his team to buy into it. The “Super Nice, trying to be liked by everyone approach” that Lancaster championed, is not English. Unfortunately, when it comes to sport, everyone wants to annihilate the English.
It doesn’t matter how nice we are, there’s too much history with Wars/Mother Country status and rivalry. Come game day, teams always want to smash us.
Top of the food chain
The one time England was at the top of the food chain, was the 2001-2003 era under Clive Woodward. During that time, England didn’t care what anyone thought of them or how they played. They had games they played expansively, they had games of 10-man rugby, but the way they played was always in pursuit of one aim. To win. They only cared about winning; another Australian trait bought over to England by Clive’s days playing for Manly. This can’t be underestimated, that win at all costs mentality. That very Australian mentality.
Jones has the same outlook, and our recent success is dependent on this desire to win and not caring what others think of us.
The result of this mindset change
The result? We are now a team that is, rightly, second in the world and has a reputation of playing for the full 80 minutes to secure the win.
We have won games against teams playing at their best, even when we are playing poorly. And won games by snatching them at the last moment, in very similar fashion to the All Blacks. Two great examples of this were the Six Nations match against Wales in 2017 and the 1st test against Argentina. If you haven’t seen these matches then look them up and watch the highlights. The rugby is beautiful to watch and equally striking. Striking to see the difference in attitude from previous England teams. And that’s all to do with huge self-belief. The belief under Lancaster was artificial as they didn’t win enough. Under Jones, with the help of the winning streak, it’s deep-rooted in this team to the depth that a loss is devastating.
This team; however, has just scratched the surface of what it can achieve, and this is down to three key important factors that Jones has prioritised.
- Development of New and Existing Players
England, under the watchful and astute eye of Dean Benton, is becoming a rapidly fitter team.
The majority of their wins have come in the last 20 minutes, an area where the All Blacks often break away. If you watch the last 20 minutes against Wales, England were rampant. Moving the ball with speed and dynamism. And it’s their fitness and composure under significant physical pressure that won them that game.
Gregor Paul actually referred to England’s fitness in the NZ Herald after the Scotland game, he said:
“This was highly conditioned, big athletes playing at pace and with dynamism. This was England fulfilling everyone else’s long-held fear that they would be such a good side if they could inject agility, mobility and pace into their forward pack”
This is a key factor for England to be able to stop the All Blacks going into hyper-drive in the last 20, by matching it. In the Lions series, if you look at the test matches, not many English players needed to be taken off the field. And with the quality and impact of the England bench, the intensity and power can keep coming for the full 80 minutes, something the All Blacks aren’t necessarily used to in their opposition.
Secondly, England is becoming a more skilful team.
I will write a full article about England’s attacking strategy in the next week. But under Jones, we have our forwards playing and passing the ball with ease, acting as link players, drawing the man and putting others into space. At the start of Jones’ tenure, England focused predominantly on misdirection, and offloading was kept to a minimum. Over the summer tour to Argentina, England were offloading with more fluency. Not behind to a static player, but to hard effective runners coming through, off the carrier’s shoulder. The proper way.
Jones has expressed a desire to develop England’s attack after defence and the set piece is settled. Clearly, he has decided the time is right to add this in. It will assist greatly in England’s already increased potency in attack.
This is just one side of the game that Jones is looking to develop. Another is based directly on one of his training methods called “tactical periodisation“.
The main tenet of this is…how quickly can we transition from attack to defence, and vice versa? Essentially, how quickly can we counter-attack off turnover ball?
The mindset has already been worked on, as we saw in two tries scored against Argentina on the Summer tour. One by George Ford in the 1st test, and the second by Danny Care in the 2nd test. Both exemplified this change in philosophy. England turned over the ball and went instantly on the offensive. Both tries were scored within 10 seconds of each turnover.
Before 2017, we had no natural jackals. As such, our ability to use this tactic was compromised. With Sam Underhill and Tom Curry now broken into the team, they are now able to work this new dynamic, and Jones can start to focus on it.
The All Blacks score a lot of tries on the counter-attack and have shown it’s a huge attacking weapon. Especially as defences are unstructured and exploitable at this point. When teams knock the ball on or make a handling error, to the Kiwis it’s an instant opportunity. Let me reiterate that. An INSTANT opportunity. With the dual playmaker strategy to exploit space anywhere on the field, the press defence to force the opposition into mistakes, and the change in mindset to attack urgently, England are looking to emulate this.
This brings us nicely to the next point.
Development of New and Existing Players
Thirdly and most excitingly, is the development of new players. This will allow for new ways of playing on top of the English way that Jones now has, as well as developing the current stalwarts further.
This Autumn is not about starting a new streak to Jones. In fact, Jones will be happy he has Samoa, Argentina and Australia this year. With all due respect, Australia are the only ones that will give England a game. This Autumn is about developing the last batch of players that will be coming into the team for 2019.
The new players Jones will be most keen to see develop, are located in the back row. Specifically Sam Underhill and Tom Curry.
Sam Underhill – remember this name
Sam Underhill, is one of the hardest tacklers I have ever seen. People run into him and stop. He simply puts them straight back down. He made 25 tackles in 67 minutes on his Premiership debut, showing a great work rate as well. Jones was looking at him when he was playing in the Pro12 and therefore not eligible to be picked. He convinced him to come over to Bath, and now England are staring at their first natural openside since Neil Back.
Why is he so important? He will give Jones a “jackal-like” ability that will enable England to turn their counter from an occasional thing into a genuine weapon. At only 21, he is going to be a huge player for England for years to come and is a further indication of how excellent England’s age grade teams currently are. Isiekwe is another great young player and is a perfect example of the athletic, mobile locks that England are now sporting. The locks in England colours make a lot of clear outs and carries; the athletic makeup is essential if they are to continue in this role.
There are some key established players Jones that will be looking to develop.
The partnership between Youngs and Ford, the Leicester and England first choice pairing, is vital. Daly will most likely be given a shot at 13, though he will need to work on his communication as 13 is the pivotal role in defence. Watson at 15 will also need to work on his communication. Jonny May has improved his work rate dramatically, resulting in a try in every game of the season so far. Adding this to his blistering pace will give him a near-certain chance to prove if he can do the same in international colours.
In the Pack, Itoje will be expected to take more lead in lineouts and front-foot ball, as will Jamie George and Ellis Genge. Nathan Hughes also has a lot to prove as he seeks to usurp Billy Vunipola as first choice 8.
The most important area is the halfback partnership. And in particular George Ford. For those who don’t know much about him, he has the potential to be the best 10 in the Northern Hemisphere, possibly the World. Everyone here in England has stated a case for Farrell, but Jones has never wavered. And I am hugely grateful he hasn’t. Jones has said that he has had an eye on George Ford since 2013, and has since stated he is the unequivocal first choice. Much to the chagrin of many sports writers over here, who since Wilkinson, believe the next prodigal son to the number 10 shirt should first and foremost be a great kicker, a view I cannot disagree more about.
England under Ford have only lost three games. This is because under him England score tries. Ford is far more like a Southern Hemisphere 10 than the northern counterpart. He not only plays flatter than any other international 10 but has a vision and a distribution skillset that, in my opinion, is the best in the world.
Example of this
If you can, watch the lead up to Jamie George’s try in the 3rd test against Australia in 2016. Ford takes the ball to the line and sees 3 England carriers ready to take the ball off him. All are marked by a line of 5 Wallabies, but the logical thing to do is to pass them the ball and set up the next phase.
Ford fires a 30 metre left handed float pass that goes over the 5 Wallabies, straight into the hands of Nowell, who leaves the Wallabies scrambling as he takes the ball to the line. No Wallaby saw that pass coming. Jamie George scores 2 phases later. That pass made the try, and in my opinion, the vision and skill set needed for it is something no other 10 has.
Changing under Jones
Ford used to break the line more, but under coaching from Lancaster, this eased up, and he was happier to draw the man rather than have a go himself. Jones will be looking for him to improve his running game, “to be more selfish” as he’s put it. Ford’s feel for understanding space, when to pass and who to pass too is already top notch. But he is the key driver for England’s attacking game, and working with Farrell and Daly, makes everyone outside of 12 an unbelievable speed merchant.
What this all boils down to is the question can England catch up by RWC 2019?
Honest answer. Yes, they can. It will take all of Jones’ brains, the extra training the players are doing on top of their club work, and the key players to develop. But if they can, and it is a big if, I see quite a few facets in which they will be able to at least match the All Blacks. Not just positional, but fitness-wise as well. Their bench depth is packed with quality, and you can arguably say are as good and will certainly impact more than the first choice 15. It will be hard as the All Blacks are also developing/evolving their game, but I think we have the players and now the coaching systems for them to really make a go of it.
Areas to match All Blacks
The areas I see are we can match are the Back Three, with May, Watson and any one of Daly/Cokasinga/Nowell will be very effective. Most importantly in the counterattack, remember Tactical Periodisation. The Back Row, with Vunipola, Underhill and Robshaw, have that perfect blend of power and work rate. England will use it to stifle teams (which will be key against the All Blacks). The Locks, by 2019 could be up there with Retallick and Whitelock. Itoje, Kruis and Isiekwe are all Saracens, and as such very familiar together. Lastly, the Halfbacks, who not only play together at Tigers but are both class players in their own right.
The rest of the areas the All Blacks most likely pip England. Let the passionate debating commence!
One thing is for certain. England vs New Zealand is the hottest ticket in World Rugby right now. And once the new blood has been blooded, developed and brought properly into the fold next year, as well as our stalwarts making their own developments, come Nov 2018 it’s going to be a battle of Titanic proportions.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.