With Freddie Burns kicking Leicester to a late victory over Saracens, the Premiership Rugby season came to an end and the eyes of English fans turned to the Summer Tests as England kicked off the action at Twickenham with a match against the Barbarians, which saw the invitational team win 52-21 despite playing the entire second half a man down following a red card to WIll Skelton.
Of course the Baabaas are always going to be tough to judge as the are full of quality individuals but have little time together as a team, and similarly this was an England team missing its Leicester and Saracens players, so we can expect a very different team when England kick off their tour, but what can England learn from this match?
Tries: Joe Cokanasiga (36′), Jonny May (51′), Marcus Smith (60′)
Penalties: Marcus Smith (16′, 35′)
Tries: Penalty (18′), Charles Ollivon (24′), Damian Penaud (38′,55′) Baptiste Couilloud (46′), Louis Carbonel (67′), Max Spring (74′), Antoine Hastoy (79′)
Conversions: Antoine Hastoy (25′, 68′), George Kruis (47′, 75′, 80′)
It’s not easy being an England fan these days.
There are some bad teams in rugby, but very few look as toothless or lost in attack as England. Eddie Jones has made a big thing of this “formationless rugby” that he wants to play, but too often when they have played this year, they have just looked lost.
Today was another such occasion. England made a couple of midfield breaks through the forwards in the early minutes, but there was no cohesion in the play, and it’s notable that their sole try in the first half came from countering a kick rather than going through the phases. It wasn’t really until the introduction of Danny Care early in the second half (by which point Will Skelton’s red card had left England with a 1-man advantage) that England started to find some shape and cohesion, scoring a couple of tries. But even then, many attacks came to dull endings or saw England letting men get isolated and turned over.
Granted it is probably an attacking style that benefits from a group of players who are used to playing together (which would of course hamper this cobbled together team) but with the World Cup just over a year away and a lot of questions still regarding the England line-up, are they running out of time. Can Owen Farrell’s experience get this attack working, either alongside Marcus Smith or in pace of him? Or is it time for Eddie Jones to consider this another failed experiment and go back to a more conventional attack.
Awful day for Atkinson
With Manu Tuilagi’s inability to stay match fit, something that England have continually lacked under Eddie Jones has been an answer for when he is not available. While Eddie Jones has usually chosen to go for a more lightweight and playmaking midfield in his star’s absence, one player whose club performances over he same timeframe should have earned him more chances was Mark Atkinson.
Well the Gloucester centre got his chance today, but it couldn’t have really gone much worse for him. England’s complete lack of structure and fluidity limited his effectiveness, which was then made even worse playing against a centre pairing of heavyweights Levani Botia and Virimi Vakatawa and a defence coached by Shaun Edwards. Meanwhile in defence, the normally solid defender fund himself falling off a few tackles and being outpaced to the outside by Damian Penaud for a break midway through the first half. Watching him today, it was sadly obvious that he hadn’t played any competitive rugby for a couple of months. And then to make it even worse, a 50/50 pass in his 22 failed to loft over Penaud and allowed the French wing to go over for a try right a England started to get back in the match.
He certainly started showing his quality more in the second half, with a couple of involvements in the build-up to Jonny May’s try, but given that’s against 14 men following Will Skelton’s red card, you can guarantee that it won’t get the recognition that it deserves.
While Atkinson’s form over recent years and his status as the only crash ball 12 available to England right now (with Tuilagi, Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence and Leicester’s Dan Kelly all out injured) should be enough to put him on the plane to Australia, it wouldn’t surprise me if this match is the excuse Eddie Jones will use to leave him out.
Well there was little to be happy about for England today, fans should be pleased with the returns of Danny Care and Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was playing for England for the first time in just over a year, while Care had become one of the many whose face didn’t fit in Jones’ England, having not played since November 2018, despite having been arguably one of the best 9s in the world in recent years.
And while England lost badly, there were certainly positives to take from their performances. Cokanasiga looked to be troubled a little by an ankle injury sustained midway through the first half, but made a couple of good breaks and finished off Tommy Freeman’s stunning kick counter with a strong carry to the line with a tackler hanging off of him. With his size and power, he provides a different option out wide that could be especially useful with Manu Tuilagi missing the tour, if they can get him coming in off his wing and find some holes to punch him through in midfield.
And as for Care, well his experience and quality certainly helped England bring some shape to their attack. Will he be given the chance to show his quality Down Under? Or was he just brought in as Eddie wanted an experienced 9 in camp while Ben Youngs was still with Leicester. If care isn’t on the plane to Australia, it may be time for a riot.