Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v France

With Saturday having seen 3ʳᵈ-8ᵗʰ decided, Sunday saw England hosting France at Twickenham to decide the overall winner of the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. A player usage agreement with the Top 14 meant that France were using fringe players against what Eddie Jones would probably consider close to his ideal XV, and it was the home team who opened the scoring in front of 2000 fans with a penalty from Owen Farrell. Les Bleus weren’t just there to make up the numbers, though, and when Matthieu Jalibert broke through the England defence on the edge of their 22, he quickly spread it wide to put Brice Dulin over for the opening try, which Jalibert converted. Elliot Daly and Jalibert traded penalties, but England were gifted an opportunity at the end of the half as Dulin failed to recognise that he had been passed the ball by a player outside his 22, kicking the ball out on the full to give England a lineout deep in the French 22. England went through 12 phases camped on the French line – during which George Ford butchered an overlap to go for the line himself – before Ellis Genge knocked on as he tried to fight his was across from a pick-and-go. The French won the free kick at the resulting scrum and were able to put the ball into touch to end the half with a 6-13 lead.

The second half stared as the first ended, with Anthony Watson knocking on Owen Farrell’s cross kick in the air, but Farrell soon kicked a penalty to narrow the gap, before missing a couple of kicks in a row. Jalibert left the pitch early with an injury and was replaced by fellow youngster Louis Carbonel, and though he struggled to get the offence running as well with Jonathan Danty also off, his kicking from the tee was on point as he kicked to penalties to one more from Farrell to give Les Bleus a 7-point lead with just minutes left. It looked like the French would hold out for the unlikeliest of victories, but referee Andrew Brace and TMO Ben Whitehouse both failed to spot 2 clear knock-ons from the English in their last gasp attack, before Brace awarded England a penalty. George Ford kicked to the corner and the England pack managed to drive the ball infield for Luke Cowan-Dickie to go over with the clock in the red, Farrell kicking the conversion in the clutch to leave the scores level at 19-19 at full time.

And so the game entered sudden death extra time, and for a moment it looked as if it would be over almost immediately as England were awarded a penalty, but Owen Farrell’s kick hit the right post and flew across the face of the posts without going between them. France worked their way downfield but were unable to set up the drop goal, ending the first period still at 19-19. England started getting the decisions in the second period, though, which allowed them to control the territory. France were clearly tiring quicker and when Alivereti Raka was isolated following a clever kick to the corner, England were awarded another penalty and Farrell bisected the posts to complete the most undeserving of victories and be crowned the first ever Autumn Nations Cup Champions.

Kick to nowhere

You know what you’re getting with England these days: a solid defence, and the ball being kicked within a couple of phases of winning possession. And yet despite having a back line full of talented kickers of the ball – Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly – the kicking game was an absolute shambles in this game.

In Anthony Watson and Jonny May, England have 2 premier talents, with the pace and aerial ability to cause problems for their opponents, and yet they were barely given a chance to compete, while Brice Dulin and Matthieu Jalibert had a relatively easy job of dealing with most of their kicks.

George Ford is supposedly one of the premier attacking 10s in World Rugby – as the commentary repeatedly told us – and yet he did nothing of note in attack other than butcher a try just before half time, while his kicking was aimless, other than one quality kick to the corner to set up the game-tying try. Meanwhile, reliable kicker Owen Farrell may as well have flipped a coin before each kick to decide if it was going ever or not – he never seemed to get fully comfortable on the day, which almost proved costly.

If England are going to rely on defence and the kicking game rather than trying to play rugby, they need to be perfect in everything they do. This is a game that they should have lost, and they need to seriously improve if they want to even stand a chance against the French in the Six Nations.

La fiabilité

For so long, the cliché has been that you never know which French team will turn up from week to week. Well that can be well and truly forgotten right now. Under Fabien Galthié, the French team has been largely consistent in its selection – though don’t be surprised to see a few fringe players fighting for a spot after the last couple of performances – but the consistency has gone even beyond that.

With Shaun Edwards coaching the defence, the French have become so solid and reliable, while their discipline is also far better than it was beforehand. And even this week, with the fringe players on the pitch who have likely had less time in camp, that defensive solidity was clear to all to see.

And yet unlike some teams with strong defences, they also have the attacking skills to match it. Yes, they were a little lacking towards the end of the game, but Louis Carbonel will only improve as he gets more experience both for Toulon and France, and will also benefit from playing with a settled team that has more chemistry.

From the early stages of the 2020 Six Nations, I felt confident that France would be my favourites to win the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The more I see of them, the more confident I feel of that prediction.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Wales v England

The final round of the Autumn Nations Cup pool stage kicked off this afternoon with England’s trip to Llanelli to face Wales. With 2 wins from 2, England arrived at Parc y Scarlets the heavy favourites, but it was the home side who took the lead as Dan Biggar blocked at attempted grubber from Henry Slade, the ball was hacked on into the English dead ball area and centre Johnny Williams – who had previously scored for England in a uncapped match against the Barbarians – beat off all opposition to dot the ball down, with Leigh Halfpenny nailing the conversion. England had been the stronger team before the try and remained so, and when Dan Biggar knocked on after being tackled in the air by Sam Underhill – a clear penalty that referee Romain Poite inexplicably deemed legal despite the TMO’s protestation – England went through the phases and eventually drew in the Welsh defence enough to put Henry Slade over for the try out wide, Farrell missing the conversion – his 2ⁿᵈ miss following an early penalty – to allow Wales to keep the lead. Halfpenny missed a penalty that would have extended the lead, and Owen Farrell found his range with the boot to kick 2 penalties and give England a 7-11 lead at the break.

Wales made a number of changes early in the second half, but it didn’t bring any immediate success as they were tackled over their own line following a 5m lineout. England went through the phases off the scrum and with the ball just inches from the line, Mako Vunipola managed to pick from the base and pirouette through contact to score, Farrell adding the 2 points. Wales kept themselves in the fight with 2 penalties from Dan Biggar, but the game was effectively killed off with 13 minutes remaining, as Ben Youngs took advantage of a loose ball on the floor following a deliberate knock on from Wales 40m out, going though a gap and spreading the ball to Anthony Watson, who was stopped 5m short of the line. However Poite, who had completely missed the knock on decided that a gain of 35 metres was not sufficient to call the advantage over and Farrell duly added the 3 points off the tee to take the lead beyond 7 points. As the clock ticked down, Farrell added another 3 points off the tee but missed a final attempt, and England came away with the 13-24 victory to top the pool.

Eat sleep, kick, repeat

England’s defence was once again fantastic. Their set piece largely dominant. Their attack… Boring? Repetitive? Lacking? Unimaginative? There are certainly very few positive words I can think of to describe it.

Let’s not forget that had Romain Poite been doing a better job, 8 of England’s points wouldn’t have counted and some of the scrum penalties against Wales were very dubious – and this is coming from an Englishman! England have a world class winger in Jonny May and plenty of talented attacking players, however Eddie Jones instead chooses to go for Ben Youngs and George Ford to kick all their ball back to Wales. Yes a lot of them were meant to be contestable kicks, but they were poor, and at best those kicks are usually a 50/50 to retain. Meanwhile Wales are left with what appears to be a decent defence because it was hardly ever tested in the game.

Yes, a solid set piece, reliable goal kicker and stingy defence will only get you so far and you need to have an attack of your own – just look at how dangerous France are at the moment with an incredible attack and defence!

Just one look at a weekend of Premiership action will show you that the attacking talent is available to Eddie Jones, there just needs to be a change of mindset from the coaches to take this team to the next level.

Time running out?

It wasn’t just the England attack that was lacking in this game, as the Welsh attack produced… well, nothing! The one time they truly looked dangerous was Williams’ try, which was just chasing down a blocked kick.

The pack were clearly missing the talents of players like Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi and struggled to make any ground to put the team on the front foot, and this meant that the backs were unable to create any space, with Louis Rees-Zammit’s best chance coming when he had 5m of space when getting the ball – however this was against Anthony Watson, who had only just come on and had the pace and angle to cover him – and Josh Adams never even got that!

While the appointment of Wayne Pivac seemed a great move following his success with the Scarlets and the perfect cure to years of Warrenball, it feels like he is struggling to get this team performing at anything close to an acceptable level, and with Scott Robertson looking so impressive with the Crusaders, I can’t help feel that the WRU should reach out to see if he would be interested in stepping up to international rugby and making the move to bring him in before the All Blacks move on from Ian Foster.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

The second weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup kicked off in a wonderful fashion with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. The English came in off a dominant win over Georgia and their impressive defence continued from the off.

After a tight opening 15 minutes, it was England who broke the deadlock as Owen Farrell made use of a penalty advantage in the Irish 22 and kicked a high ball out to the right wing, where Jonny May managed to rise above Hugo Keenan to win the ball and cross the line under heavy pressure from James Lowe. The Irish thought they had a chance to hit back minutes later with a lineout 5m from the England line, but their lineout issues returned as Ronan Kelleher overthrew his jumper and England won possession back, spreading the ball to Jonny May on the far wing who slipped through the defence before chasing down his own kick downfield for a stunning second try, which Owen Farrell converted. The Irish managed to regain some degree of parity but could not find an answer for the English defence. With just a few minutes left of the half, a risky Irish move off a lineout in their own 22 looked to have backfired spectacularly as Sam Underhill dotted the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO showed that he had completed the tackle on Jamison Gibson-Park and played the ball on the floor on the Irish side of the breakdown, meaning Underhill’s wait for a first Test try would continue as his team went into the break 12-0 up.

Ireland’s inability to severely test the England defence continued in the second half, and Owen Farrell punished their indiscipline with 6 points off the tee. However as the half went on, the English discipline began to slip and the Irish began to spend more time in the English 22. A clever kick from Ross Byrne caught the England defence out and Chris Farrell collected, only for Henry Slade to tackle him and roll him over the line to hold the ball up. As the clock ticked down, England’s win became all-but assured, but the Irish managed to earn some consolation as replacement Billy Burns chipped in behind the English line and Jacob Stockdale collected to go under the posts, with Burns adding the extras for a final score of 18-7.

The white wall

Ireland didn’t necessarily play a bad match here – besides the lineout – but they just had no answer for the England defence. While there is certainly reason to question Eddie Jones’ reticence to bring in some of the best attacking talents in the Premiership, the players that he put on the pitch are working so well as a formidable defensive unit.

They keep organised, they come up in your face and tackle you en masse to push you back from the gain line, while also taking their chances to slow down the ball and create turnovers. It hardly looks like they tire, but then as you tire, you see another player come on and do the same to you.

Argentina showed last weekend against the All Blacks how a great defence and doing the basics right can win you the game, well England’s defence puts them in that position and with special talent like Jonny May in the side, there is always that threat when they have the ball. Certainly I feel that there are players in the Premiership who could improve this team, but they are in a strong position already.

Tactical blunder?

It’s not often you can say this with your team down 18-0 at the time that you’re replaced, but Ross Byrne didn’t have a bad game. The Leinster fly half was given the start in the absence of Johnny Sexton, and would have wished for a much easier challenge so soon in his international career. However he played a solid, if unspectacular game, leading what was clearly an attempt to put England under pressure by peppering Elliot Daly with high balls – always a good plan – and kicking for the corners to take advantage of any territory. Unfortunately for him, England were able to deal with much of this and pay it back with interest, and it just didn’t seem like the Irish had and answer, though Chris Farrell had a degree of success attacking at 13. Probably the best moment of the game from Byrne was his last-second switch to a grubber that almost led to a try, but other than this it was a pretty basic gameplan from Ireland that barely troubled the home defence.

Billy Burns entered the fray in the final 8 minutes and, though there was little chance to show what he could do, the Irish attack already looked more dangerous. Burns was always a great attacking 10 at Gloucester and has continued as such with Ulster, being able to vary the attack with a series of passes and kicks. This was perfectly highlighted by the try at the end, recognising that the high pressure from the England defence would leave a gap in behind and putting in an inch-perfect chip for Stockdale to run onto.

And so with this improvement in the attack, a question should be asked of why Andy Farrell did not choose to bring on Burns earlier. It’s by no means a knock at Byrne, but the gameplan he was set up clearly wasn’t working, whereas a more varied attack may have got more success out of Farrell, Keenan and Lowe.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Georgia

England’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Georgia is not one that will live long in the memory for many people, but let’s get through this.

Eddie Jones put out a side full of experience but also with a few debutants, and though they quickly found themselves camped on the Georgian line, it took them quarter of an hour to finally break the deadlock as Wasps flanker Jack Willis forced himself over on debut, converted by Owen Farrell. The physical contest continued, but the Lelos struggled to get any territory of note and conceded 2 tries in quick succession as England utilised the driving maul for Jamie George to earn a first half brace, the first of which was converted by Farrell. England finally remembered they had a back line just before half time and Jonathan Joseph came off his wing to create an overlap that allowed Elliot Daly to go over in the corner to secure the bonus point, while Farrell converted for a 26-0 halftime score.

Any hopes of a more exciting second half were quickly doused by deteriorating weather conditions, but Jamie George found reason to celebrate just before the hour mark as another driving maul saw him complete his hat trick, with Farrell adding the 2 points. Georgia kept competing however and earned some possession in the England 22, but the England defence coped with them and worked their way back downfield, allowing replacement Dan Robson to snipe over from close range for his first Test try, which Farrell converted for a final score of 40-0.

Mauled

For a team so revered for their scrummaging ability, the Georgians really have an issue with the maul. The Lelos don’t appear to have any way to stop a Tier 1 team when they get the driving maul set, with Scotland scoring 3 times and setting up another try using the driving maul just a couple of weeks ago, to add to Jamie George’s hat trick today.

Every time a team gets the maul set against Georgia, it either seems to end in a penalty due to the Lelos bringing it down illegally, or else with the referee blowing his whistle for a try. Meanwhile when the Lelos get the chance to put together a driving maul of their own, England found it all to easy to break the pack apart and get through on the ball.

Georgia need to be playing against Tier 1 teams regularly in order to improve these facets of the game. Until they do so, teams will be kicking their penalties to touch in the knowledge that all they need to do is set up the maul and drive the Lelos out of the match.

Wasted opportunity

While it was great to see Ollie Lawrence and Jack Willis making well-deserved debuts, this was still a wasted opportunity from Eddie Jones to test the depth of his squad and give some of his younger players experience. What does anyone learn from a halfback pairing of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell in this game, or regulars Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola, Jamie George and Jonny May. Similarly, Jonathan Joseph is as much an international wing as Elliot Daly is an international fullback – not at all.

Instead, the form players form the Premiership could have been rewarded, with a back row of Ben Earl, Jack Willis and European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds, who didn’t even make the wider squad. Ollie Thorley could have been given his debut on one wing, with players like George Furbank, Ruaridh McConnochie, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Joe Cokanasiga looked at for the other spots in the back 3 – yet only Furbank and Thorley made the wider squad and neither made the 23! Ben Spencer and Robson should be fighting for the 9 shirt, but Spencer was forced to watch from home while Robson made a 20 minute cameo. And then we come to fly half, where Owen Farrell plays the full 80 minutes while Jacob Umaga fails to make the 23 and Marcus Smith and Joe Simmonds – who just led Exeter to the league and European double – don’t even make the wider squad.

Hopefully a day doesn’t come when England regret not blooding more talent in matches like this.

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Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

Six Nations 2020: Italy v England

The long-delayed Super Saturday to end the 2020 Six Nations continued at the Stadio Olimpico as Italy hosted England. The Azzurri’s 6ᵗʰ place finish was already confirmed, while the visitors knew that they needed to win – and win big – to potentially win the tournament.

Things couldn’t have started much better for England, with Owen Farrell breaking through in midfield and feeding Ben Youngs to pen the scoring on his 100ᵗʰ cap, Farrell adding the conversion and a further 3 points from a penalty soon after. The men in white struggled to build on this though, and were made to pay when a handling error allowed Jake Polledri to go over in the corner. England survived a 10-minute period without Jonny Hill following a high tackle, but after Polledri was sent to the bin for coming in at the side of a maul, England failed to capitalise on the extra an at the catch and drive – getting turned over short of the line – and almost conceded themselves right before halftime as they failed to deal with a kick down the right wing, with both George Furbank and Federico Mori missing the ball and Jonny May cleaning up to end the half 5-10.

With Polledri still in the bin for the opening minutes of the second half, the Italian defence found themselves stretched and allowed Ben Youngs to snipe off the side of a ruck to go over for his second try of the game. With Italy back to a full complement, they looked like they had the desire but not the personnel, an England drove over from a lineout, Jamie George dotting down for the try, and while England never really shone, Tom Curry and Henry Slade both scored in the corner to secure the bonus point with a 5-34 victory. This victory put England top of the table, and with France beating Ireland later in the evening, they were crowned Six Nations Champions.

Who wants it?

England may have been the one going for the Six Nations title, but there was only 1 team that looked like they had the desire to win this game: Italy. The Azzurri were fired up for this match and taking it as a personal affront any time they were beaten as a pack, while celebrating vociferously with every turnover and penalty they won.

Were England just struggling as this was their first match together? Or were they just taking Italy for granted? Either way, I need to see more desire from England.

In too deep

While Italy may have had the desire, they came away with only 5 points from this game, and the only times they really looked like scoring were the try – which came off an England error – and a chance just before halftime as Mori chased a kick downfield.

To me, one of the big reasons that they created so little was how deep their back line was playing. When the ball was going through the forwards off 9, they were holding parity against the England defence and making metres, but as soon as the ball went to the backs, they were dropping almost 10 metres with each pass, but not doing anything to trouble the England defence. This would lead to them being tackled well behind the gain line and struggling to keep possession as most of their men were in front of the ball.

If Italy want to start having some success, they need to start by getting fly half Paolo Garbisi playing closer to the line. Only by doing this will the Azzurri be able to start bringing in midfield runners to cause defences trouble and create space on the outside.

In the footsteps of a legend

For so long, Italy have rallied around their star man and captain Sergio Parisse. While he may now be gone, another superstar has emerged from his shadow in the shape of Gloucester’s Jake Polledri.

Capable of playing across the back row, he has recently been used at 8 by the Azzurri, which I think suits him best, as he has the power game to create a platform coming off the base of the scrum, while also the pace to exploit any space he is given – both of which he showed in scoring his try in this game. On top of that, he is also a threat at the breakdown, capable of playing at 7.

And at 24 years old and playing for Gloucester, it means that he is playing against many of the best players in the world on a weekly basis. I may have some bias having watched him regularly these past few years, but I feel comfortable picking him amongst the top 5 number 8s in the world currently playing, and that is just the kind of player Italy needs right now.

Guinness Six Nations

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

Six Nations 2020: England v Wales

With coronavirus fears causing Ireland’s game against Italy to be postponed, Round 4 of the Six Nations eventually kicked off at Twickenham with England’s match against Wales. Anthony Watson gave England an early lead, which was added to by Elliot Daly and the boot of Owen Farrell, the boots of Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar keeping Wales just in it for a 20-9 halftime score. Wales hit back immediately after the break with a try from Justin Tipuric, but a try for Manu Tuilagi helped England pull away, before the centre’s late red card and a yellow for Ellis Genge gave Wales a 2-man advantage, which allowed them to have the final say through tries for Dan Biggar and Tipuric again to come away with a losing bonus point, the 33-30 final score earning England the Triple Crown.

 

England

England may go down as the victors, but they came so close to shooting themselves in the foot with their poor discipline. A game between these two nations is always going to be a tetchy affair, but there were moments that England took things too far. Captain Owen Farrell saw him penalised on his own line for an unnecessary shove that sparked a brawl and was potentially lucky to not be penalised again shortly later for shoving over Dan Biggar while chasing a kick, while Joe Marler may find himself in hot water for trying to get to know Alun Wyn Jones a little too well during one scuffle. Then with less than 10 minutes left, Ellis Genge was yellow carded for persistent offending from the team and Manu Tuilagi was given a red card for a high shot on George North, which almost cost England the game as Wales scored 14 points in the final 5 minutes. Had they had another 5 minutes, I can’t help but feel that their numerical advantage would have seen them come away with the win.

10 penalties is too many for a team to give away if they want to win a game, England need to buck up their ideas if they want to improve their chances of success in the big games.

Wales

When I asked my friend Gez (a Wales fan who has contributed on some previous posts) what he thought of Wales’ performance, I got the following reply:

So we can score against 13 and can’t defend wide, narrow or against hard runners, that’s what we’ve learned here

While I fully agree that the defensive set-up needs looking at as it is allowing teams to get around them too easily, I think that Wales’ current situation needs remembering. They have just had a change in coaches so will take a moment to adapt to a new playing style, but came into this match missing a number of players who have played key roles in the team recently: Gareth Anscombe, Jonathan Davies, Tomas Francis, Josh Adams and Rhys Patchell. They also had Josh Navidi, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar (who I question if he as really even 95% fit) playing having recently returned from injury and had Jake Ball and Dillon Lewis go off injured during the game and Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Aaron Shingler finish the game in varying degrees of fitness. Further to that, there were other players like Owen Lane and Willis Haloholo out injured, who could have positively impacted the team.

Given that injury list, it is hard to look into Wales performance too much right now. Yes, big improvements are needed quickly if Wales want to start winning more, but it is important to not make any snap reactions now. Having a key partnership like hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies return (or even have Halaholo covering for one of these players) with a fully fit Josh Navidi in the back row will immediately make the middle of the park feel ore secure against big runners like a Manu Tuilagi, giving a better platform to build the defence off. If the issues persist with a team much closer to the ideal XV, then change will be needed.


My standout players

Manu Tuilagi‘s game may have ended on a negative, but his hard carrying helped put England on the front foot, while Anthony Watson looked great on his return from injury. Ben Youngs also put in one of his best performances in recent years, controlling the game and exploiting a number of gaps around the breakdown.

It was harder to pick out for Wales in a largely disappointing performance, but Josh Navidi clearly had a positive impact on his return from injury and lasted the full 80 minutes, while his return also appeared to free up Justin Tipuric to have more impact in the loose. Finally, a mention for Dan Biggar, who completed the full 80 minutes despite not appearing to be fully fit after his injury last weekend and did everything he could to keep Wales in the game, though it did feel like somewhat of a kick in the teeth to keep Jarrod Evans on the bench.

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Six Nations 2020: England v Ireland

Round 3 of the 2020 Six Nations came to an end in Twickenham with the visit of Ireland. Andy Farrell’s men came in off the back of a great performance against Wales, but soon found themselves behind after they failed to deal with a Ben Youngs grubber, gifting George Ford a try. Issues with England’s kicking game continued and led to a try for Elliot Daly, while in attack, they rarely looked dangerous, going in 17-0 down at half time. Things evened out a little in the second half, with Robbie Henshaw soon crashing over for a try, but England’s pack and backs bundled Luke Cown-Dickie over the line from 5 metres out to secure the win. A late try for Andre Porter giving the score a bit more respectability, with John Cooney kicking the conversion to bring an end to the game, England emerging 24-12 winners to become the only team still capable of winning the Triple Crown.

England

Does Eddie Jones actually understand what a number 8 does? With Billy Vunipola missing the tournament through injury, many – myself included – were shocked at the lack of a specialist number 8 in the squad for the tournament, especially given the form of Alex Dombrandt and Sam Simmonds. With Ben Earl in incredible form for Sarries and having experience across the back row, I assumed that he was being given the shot at 8, but that chance has instead gone to Tom Curry, who has started all 3 games at the position.

Now fair play to Curry, he has looked better at the position by the week, but he is still not a specialist number 8 and it is clearly limiting the team’s options, as England have barely used the number 8 pick-up option over the first 3 rounds of the tournament, especially in an attacking sense. With England putting themselves in a comfortable position at the hour mark, it was surely time to let Ben Earl show what he could do at the position. Instead, he as kept on the bench for almost another 10 minutes and the number 8 role went to… Charlie Ewels! Certainly he added some heft to the back of the scrum, but again his inclusion at the position is limiting the effectiveness of the England scrum.

Right now, I can’t even begin to imagine how demoralising it must be for Earl and even more so for Simmonds, Dombrandt and Zach Mercer to see that the national team’s head coach will prioritise players with no/limited experience at the position even at club level over players who are putting in starring performances at the position week in, week out.

How many more players will we see thrown in at number 8 ahead of a specialist? Hopefully none, but this is Eddie Jones we’re talking about. If he is to try one more though, I’ll keep my fingers crossed for Ellis Genge – just imagine the destruction he would cause picking up from the base of a scrum!

Ireland

When the game is collapsing around you and everything is going wrong, you turn to your stars and leadership group on the field. But what if they are the ones causing the problem? What were they bringing to the team in this match?

  • Conor Murray looked horribly off form. His famed kicking game was woefully wayward and gifting England possession in good areas, while he could not up the pace enough to catch out the England defensive line
  • Jonathan Sexton looked anything but a former World Rugby Player of the Year. His inability to deal with a grubber into the dead ball area gifted George Ford a try, his kicking at goal was so horribly shanked to the left I was left wondering if he was seeing double and his control of the back line was best summed up with him slipping on his butt when missing a boot
  • CJ Stander’s biggest impacts in the game were the ones he made with his right hand on Owen Farrell. Yes there was provocation from Farrell, but Stander was lucky not to be penalised
  • Cian Healy (whose impact was limited by an early injury) and Tadhg Furlong were overpowered by the English pack
  • James Ryan was more noticeable for his torpedoing into breakdowns and his picking fights than he was for any actual rugby

That just isn’t good enough from a set of key players. I have been arguing that John Cooney should have been the starting scrum half all tournament, and he clearly improved the team dynamic after he came on, upping the pace to help them get behind the defence, while he as also nailed his only attempted kick at goal, a much more difficult one than one of Sexton’s missed kicks. Likewise, Caelan Doris added something late on with his carrying, making more metres per carry than anyone else in the Irish pack.

This has to be the moment when Andy Farrell moves on from some of Joe Schmidt’s stalwarts and brings in the new blood that can help the team moving forward. Will he make the swaps, or will he continue to show faith with the tried and tested players?


My standout players

As I mentioned above, John Cooney‘s introduction certainly improved the Irish performance during the second half, which should now begin his time in the 9 shirt, while Bundee Aki but in a strong defensive performance, making 10 tackles and causing issues at the breakdown, while carrying hard to try and create a platform.

For England, Manu Tuilagi‘s big hits and bigger carries set England up to dominate the game, while Man of the Match Courtney Lawes appeared to carry harder than usual, looking more at home in the 6 shirt. Similar to Gaël Fickou yesterday, I think that Jonathan Joseph put in a strong performance out of position on the left wing, with some good sniping runs in attack, while he also benefited from not really being tested by the Irish kicking game. For the last 2 picks, I’d still prefer an actual back row and winger to play the positions, but their performances today deserved recognition.

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Six Nations 2020: Scotland v England

Saturday’s second Round 2 match was a battle between Scotland and England at Murrayfield. The poor weather may have held off for the opening game of the day in Dublin, but it was at Edinburgh in full force, leading to a game full of handling errors and (often misplaced) kicks.

England went into halftime with a 0-3 lead, with Owen Farrell having missed a couple of penalties kicking into the wind, but the Scots came out firing in the second half and Adam Hastings pulled them level, but the Scots could not take advantage of their superiority and open up a lead, which proved costly as another mistake from Stuart Hogg put England in position for Ellis Genge to drive over for the only try of the game, leaving Hastings to kick a late penalty to earn a losing bonus point, with the final score 6-13.

Scotland

If you ever wanted to see the impact that momentum has on a game, you just need to watch the second half of this game. Coming out for the second half 0-3 down and playing into the wind, Scotland should have been in a worrying position, but an early break from Rory Sutherland put them right on the front foot and they refused to let up the pressure. They eventually came away with 3 points from that attack, but their tails were up and they were making the right calls, coping with the weather far better than England, who were continually kicking the ball out on the full. To fuel this momentum even more, Stuart Hogg made a great break down the left after fielding a kick, stepping his way past both Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph before slotting a grubber kick between Jonny May and George Furbank to the corner.

Scotland kept the pressure on, but the momentum started to shift as referee Pascal Gaüzère inexplicably missed/allowed the most obvious of rips on the floor from Kyle Sinckler 5m out from the England line, allowing England to clear deep into the Scotland half. The momentum then switched completely as Stuart Hogg completely failed to deal with a questioning kick from England, almost conceding a try but instead giving England a 5m scrum, which led to Genge’s try. Suddenly after this, it was Scotland who were unable to deal with the conditions and the call to take the 3 points with a late penalty was definitely the right one as it allowed them to come away from the match with something.

Obviously it’s not often that Scotland will play in such terrible conditions and they should be happy at how well they adapted to them, but they will look back at this as a game they should have won and they need to find ways to control the momentum of the game better.

England

Only England could come away from this match with a thoroughly undeserved win. This team completely failed to deal with the conditions and can consider themselves lucky that a couple of key moments went in their favour.

“Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is? Insanity is doing the exact same f***ing thing over and over again, expecting s*** to change. That is crazy.”

Vaas Montenegro – Far Cry 3

Watching this game, I couldn’t help feel that the coaches had drilled into the team to focus on kicking for the corners to turn the defence or putting the ball up high to test their handling… to the point that nobody on the pitch had the strength of leadership to move away from this tactic. After Elliot Daly made a great break down the left wing, there was a great chance for England to work an overlap to put Jonny May over in the corner, but Owen Farrell instead chose to put a grubber into the corner. Playing with the wind behind them in the second half, Willi Heinz put 3 touchline box kicks out on the full, while Owen Farrell, George Ford and Elliot Daly all found their kicks going too long with astounding regularity.

Last week, England tried to run Jonathan Joseph hard at the France defence as if he was Manu Tuilagi. This week, they refused to go away from a kicking game that wasn’t working. How many more times will England continue to just do the same thing over and over again when it’s clearly not working?

Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?


My standout players

In a day of horrible conditions, I need to give some respect to Adam Hastings for running the Scotland attack so well and dealing with the weather far better than England’s more experienced playmakers.

Tom Curry had a much better game at the back of the scrum and caused some mayhem at the breakdown alongside Sam Underhill.

The big standout player for me, though, was George Furbank. After a debut to forget last week, these kind of conditions were the last thing he would have anted, but he dealt with them well and really grew into the game, looking one of the more assured players in the England back line.

Premier League: January 2020

Premier League: January 2020

February is here and the inevitable Liverpool slip-up to lose the title is looking less and less likely. The Reds won all their Premier League games in January, whereas both of their closest rivals dropped points, with Manchester City being held to a draw at home to Crystal Palace and Leicester losing 2-1 at Burnley.


Premier League Round-up


Legend in sky blue

While City’s draw against Palace made Liverpool’s title victory all the more likely, January 2020 was a big month for Sergio Agüero. The Argentine scored his 12ᵗʰ Premier League hat-trick (a league record) during their 1-6 demolition of Aston Villa, which saw him score his 176ᵗʰ Premier League goal to become the top-scoring non-British player in Premier League history. Then, against Palace, he scored his 250ᵗʰ and 251ˢᵗ goals for the club.

Agüero is a world-class player and a fantastic talent, and he has been a key part of Manchester City’s success over the last decade – it was in fact his goal with his first touch off the bench that saw them win at Sheffield United recently. A few years ago, it looked like his time at the club may be coming towards an end as he initially struggled to adapt to Pep Guardiola’s style of play, but he has got pas those issues and got back to looking like the elite player he had proved himself to be.

Only once in his Manchester City career has he failed to reach 20 goals in all competitions (17 in the 2012/13 season), which considering the issues that he has had at times with injuries shows just how good a player he is. At 31, he probably has a couple of good seasons in him as he relies on movement and positioning rather than outright pace, but City need to start making sure they have a quality replacement ready for when he is no longer available. Will Gabriel Jesus be the man? Time will tell…

Fair reward

Regular readers will know how much I hate simulation and diving. It’s disgusting, cheating and has no place in the game. I am fully on board punishment for players who are caught simulating in matches, but I also think that there needs to be more of a look at promoting good behaviour.

During Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Norwich, Anthony Martial was fouled in the box with the score at 0-0, but though he went to ground, he did not make a big deal about the challenge and instead got back to his feet to try to keep playing, however the chance was gone. And yet despite this, no penalty was awarded. The same weekend saw Theo Walcott fouled by Lewis Dunk during Everton’s 1-0 win over Brighton. Walcott was passing Dunk to go clean through on goal when Dunk pulled him back. Though Walcott tried to keep his feet, he was clearly off balance, which affected his shot, but again no penalty was awarded.

If we want to get rid of simulation, then it is important to not just penalise offenders, but also to reward players who are honest and try to play on when fouled if they are clearly not gaining an advantage. If players know that they won’t get the free kicks and penalties they deserve without throwing themselves to the ground, can we really blame them for going down so easy?

Transfer talk

The January transfer window is not really the place to get fantastic deals done, but even by normal standards, the big teams were largely underwhelming this season.

Steven Bergwijn and the permanent signature of Giovani Lo Celso add some good depth to the squad despite the departure of Christian Eriksen to Inter, but I feel that Spurs needed to find a central striker to lighten the load on Harry Kane, which became even more important with him getting injured.

Chelsea were another team who I felt needed to look at bringing in another striker as they don’t seem to trust Olivier Giroud, yet they celebrated having their transfer ban reduced by signing nobody. They are currently holding onto 4ᵗʰ spot and the potential of Champions League football next season, but this lack of a new striker could be costly.

For Arsenal, the loan signings of Cédric Soares and Pablo Marí could be just what they need to solidify their defence and see them start to climb up the table. I feel however that City made a mistake to not bring in another centreback as they have proved themselves to be weak at the back when Aymeric Laporte is missing.

Manchester United’s signings are interesting. Bruno Fernandes could be a great signing to improve the team’s chance creation and goal scoring (at time of writing after 25 rounds, they have scored just 36 goals). The signing that has the potential to be either brilliant or terrible is that of Odion Ighalo, who has joined on loan from Shanghai Shenhua until the end of the season. Ighalo has Premier League experience, having spent a couple of seasons at Watford that saw them promoted from the Championship, but his prolific start quickly faded and he went from 20 goals in 38 games to 17 in 42 to 2 in 19 before moving to China. His time in China has been prolific, with 36 goals in 55 games for Changchun Yatai and 10 in 19 for Shanghai, but at 30 years old, there will be questions over his ability to transition back from the Chinese league to one of the toughest leagues in the world. He is a United fan though and has taken a pay cut to make this dream move a reality, so it may be that this is able to help propel him on and if he can chip in with a decent number of goals, the experience he will bring to the young forwards around him will be invaluable.

The nation’s hopes in the palm of your hands…

Major tournaments and goalkeeping errors have often gone hand in hand for England over the last couple of decades. So many times we have seen an absolute howler one of the main memories from England’s World Cup or Euros campaign. Things appeared to improve for a time, first with Joe Hart then more recently with Jordan Pickford, but both began to look skittish and if I’m honest, I’ve lost a lot of faith in the Everton keeper.

What also can’t help is that it is rare in recent years that an England keeper has come from a top-table club. My personal feeling is that this harms our keepers, as even the best keeper in the league will struggle to avoid conceding if he doesn’t have the players in front of him. Jack Butland looked to be the next big thing a couple of years ago, but a disastrous campaign for Stoke saw them relegated and though Butland rarely seemed at fault for the goals, it looked like an entire season of picking the ball out of the back of his net took its toll and he has not reached the same level again since.

So with the European Championship coming up this summer, who should England take in their squad? I used the Premier League website to check the stats of the English keepers in the league as of the end of January.

Keepers
I have calculated the Save % by dividing the number of saves by the combined number of saves and goals conceded

Assuming England carry 3 keepers in their squad, Dean Henderson and Aaron Ramsdale would be my top 2 choices – with Henderson taking the number 1 shirt as not only does he have the best save percentage, but he is also playing for the most successful team this season. Henderson and Ramsdale are both inexperienced at internationals level, so I would probably look to take someone more experienced to help them adapt to the new environment, which unfortunately rules out Alex McCarthy. Ben Foster and Tom Heaton would be the next best options, but Foster is retired and Heaton out injured. Pope has been around the squad for a while, but again does not have the experience of playing in a tournament, so Jordan Pickford would take the third spot for me, more by process of elimination than on the strength of his performances.

Who would you select for the Euros?

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Six Nations 2020: France v England

Six Nations 2020: France v England

The first round of the 2020 Six Nations came to a close in Paris with France taking on England on Sunday. Les Bleus came into the tournament with a new coaching team (including Shaun Edwards, William Servat and head coach Fabien Galthié) and a heavily changed squad full of young, inexperienced players, whereas Eddie Jones’ attempts to pick almost the same 23 as he did in the World Cup Final were hampered by injuries to both Vunipolas and Anthony Watson.

Another name was soon added to the English injury list as Manu Tuilagi was replaced by Jonathan Joseph after just 15 minutes, by which point a try for Vincent Rattez – who had been promoted from the bench after a late injury to Damian Penaud – had put the French ahead. New France captain Charles Ollivon crossed for 2 tries, before Jonny May restored some English pride with 2 tries out of nowhere, allowing Owen Farrell to kick a penalty with the clock expired to earn a bonus point, the game ending in a 24-17 victory for the home team.

France

Jefferson Poirot and Demba Bamba are 2 fantastic props in open play. Bamba is a wrecking ball who will carry and tackle hard, while Poirot managed to earn 2 penalties with his poaching at the breakdown. While these are both fantastic qualities, the first job of a prop is at scrum time… and here, they struggled. With Cyril Baille and Mohammed Haouas starting, the scrums were relatively even, but after the swaps were made in the 49ᵗʰ minute, the England scrum became dominant and was pushing the French back with ease.

Bamba is still a very young prop with limited top flight experience, so I only expect him to improve over the coming years as he gets to spend more time working with elite scrummaging coaches, but in the meantime the coaches must be careful not to leave him too exposed in the set piece. The scrum did appear to shore itself up somewhat with the change at hooker from Julien Marchand to Peato Mauvaka. Assuming that Camille Chat takes the starting spot back when he is fit, it will be interesting to see if Marchand or Mauvaka is selected as his replacement.

England

“Test match rugby requires experience and France have decided not to take experience in, they’ve gone with youth. And they might be wrong, they might right. We don’t know but it’s going to test those young players because they will have never have played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday.

This is not domestic rugby. You don’t get that intensity in domestic rugby. That’s why you call it Test rugby. You don’t get that in Under-20s competitions. So at stages they’re going to be looking at each other wanting to know where the answers are going to come from. There are not too many of them who have experienced that before. They don’t have the experienced players to call on to say “what do you do?” and that’s going to be our intent.

We played with that brutal physicality for the last four years and we just want to get better at it.”

Eddie Jones, 2019

Those were the words of Eddie Jones in the week preceding this match. Perhaps if he had spent more time ensuring he had picked the best possible squad rather than throwing verbal grenades at the French, England may have actually turned up. Instead, most of the players looked like their heads were still in Japan, or looking ahead to Championship rugby next season.

From the moment the wider squad was selected, I was nervous at the lack of specialised number 8 in this squad. What this match showed me is that Tom Curry is not the answer at this level, as he never looked comfortable at the base of the scrum. I have never really been comfortable with the use of Maro Itoje or Courtney Lawes as a starting international 6, and this performance from Lawes did nothing to change that as the back row never felt balanced. Meanwhile Ben Youngs continued to show that he is not good enough to be the starting scrum half for England at this point (Willi Heinz upped the tempo massively with his introduction and made considerably less errors) and Elliot Daly looked so woefully off form that the question shouldn’t be if he is a 15, but instead if he has a place in this 23!

Performances over recent seasons have shown the importance of a couple of big ball carriers to this squad, so it’s no surprise to see that England’s attack disappeared the moment that Manu Tuilagi went off injured. The squad was left with nobody who could carry for the hard metres, while Alex Dombrandt was putting his feet up after a 2-try performance for Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup semifinal earlier that afternoon. Regardless of Manu Tuilagi’s status for next weekend (but especially if he is unavailable), Eddie Jones needs to look at bringing in some big ball carriers for next week. Though neither was in the wider squad, I think this week showed the need to bring in either Sam Simmonds or Alex Dombrandt to play at 8, while Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie should also be looking to start in order to provide more carrying options. Heck, even throwing in Ollie Thorley woul provide a more physical option in the back line.

Will Jones make the necessary changes? I won’t hold my breath.


My standout players

About the only player who came away from this game with an enhanced reputation for England was Jonny May, whose 2 tries from nowhere allowed England to come away with a much more respectable scoreline than they deserved.

For France, scrum half Antoine Dupont controlled the game well (bar one moment at the end where the stadium clock was inaccurate), put in a huge tackle on Willi Heinz when England had a chance to score and also tore the defence apart with one great break, which led directly to Ollivon’s second try.

Captain Charles Ollivon also deserves praise as he led the team from the front, winning a number of lineouts and also carrying for more metres than anyone else on the pitch on his way to scoring 2 tries.