The RWC2019 Debrief: England

The RWC2019 Debrief: England

Welcome to the RWC2019 Debriefs. The World Cup is now over and a new 4 year cycle begins, but the first stage of any cycle should be looking back at how things went – what went wrong and what went right – before looking on to how things go for the next cycle to ensure qualification to RWC2023 (if they haven’t automatically qualified) and to make sure they enter that tournament in peak form.

I will be going through these debriefs alphabetically, so today I will be casting my eye over England.

RWC2019 Qualification

Though they failed to make it out of the pools in 2015, England still qualified for the tournament by finishing 3rd in their pool.

2019 Form

After a pretty awful 2018, England finished 2nd in the Six Nations with a loss away to Wales and a draw against Scotland (in a match that they had led 31-7 at half time. In their warm-up matches, England lost narrowly in Wales, but won comfortably at home against Wales, Ireland and Italy, holding the Azzurri scoreless.

The Debrief

  • Pool Stages (1st in Pool C)
    • England 35-3 Tonga
    • England 45-7 USA
    • England 39-10 Argentina
    • England C-C France
  • Quarterfinal
    • England 40-16 Australia
  • Semifinal
    • England 19-7 New Zealand
  • Final
    • England 12-32 South Africa

It was a bit of an odd tournament for England, as the challenge they faced in the pools was very limited, leaving a number of questions as to how prepared they were for the knockouts. Tonga provided a physical opposition, but the challenge that they and the USA could present was always going to struggle against an improved England defence that conceded just 1 try in 3 matches (against Italy, Tonga and the USA). Then against Argentina, the challenge was over when Tomás Lavanini got himself red carded early in the first half, leaving England to pick off 14 men. While England showed some dominance in these games, especially in the scrums and mauls, they were far from inspiring and struggled to get regular cohesiveness in their attacking play. Typhoon Hagibis led to the cancellation of their match against France which would have been an interesting challenge and decided the pool standings.

Moving into the knockouts, it looked like the extra rest actually helped England find their groove. Their victories against Australia and New Zealand were both built on incredible defensive work and flankers Tom Curry and Sam Underhill thoroughly outplaying their more experienced rivals, while the attack finally hit its stride in these games.

Unfortunately, England were unable to do it 3 weeks running as they faced a much more physical outfit who there were unable to bully off the ball. Kyle Sinckler had done a great job of establishing himself as one of the best tightheads in the world through this tournament, so to lose him after just 3 minutes and require Dan Cole to play basically an entire game was always going to be hard. England were pushed around almost at will by the Springbok scrums and mauls, while their defence did a great job of shutting down everything England could produce. Meanwhile, England’s own defence conceded 2 late tries to end the game, the first highlighting risk that had been taken all year of playing Elliot Daly (who was caught in no-man’s land for the first try) at 15 in place of more recognised fullbacks Mike Brown and Alex Goode – who weren’t selected for the squad – or Anthony Watson, who was selected on the wing.

Was this a good tournament for England? I didn’t think they had a chance of beating New Zealand to make the final, so yes it was. It’s just ended on a sour note tinged with what-ifs.

Looking Ahead

The good news for this team is that the core of this team are so young. Their 3 biggest stars from this tournament – Tom Cury, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill – will only be 25, 28 and 27 respectively when the next tournament comes around, while a number of the other big names will be in their early 30s at most. Add to that the way that young English talent continues to come through at club level and the squad will be brimming with stars in 4 years. Personally, I would love to see a return for the England Saxons in order to help the young talent get more international experience, perhaps playing Tier 2 nations like the Pacific Islanders.

The big question for me right now is coaching. While Eddie Jones did a great job of turning around a team at their lowest following the 2015 tournament, I feel that his public attitude is abysmal, while a number of players who arguably could and should have been in contention for the squad (perhaps even the starting XV) were not even considered for a spot on the plane, while some players appeared undroppable regardless of how their form deteriorated. The Elliot Daly at 15 experiment needs to end as he is a defensive liability and struggles to compete in the air, putting the team at risk against teams with a strong kicking game. Right now, Jones is contracted to England until 2021, but I would rather see the RFU thank him for creating the platform for success and move onto someone else, who can then spend the next 4 years building a young team for glory in France.

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

RWC2019: Players to Watch – Pool C

We are mere days away from the start of the Rugby World Cup and we now know the players who will be on show. With the 31-man squads finalised, it’s time to start taking a look at the squads and looking at who will stand out during this tournament. In 2015, Nehe Milner-Skudder made his all Blacks debut in August, before going on to be a star of the tournament and make the tournament dream team, along with Japanese fullback Ayumu Goromaru, who definitely wasn’t known to the masses before the tournament.

With so many people who aren’t die-hard rugby fans set to watch the tournament, or many whose knowledge is maybe limited to their own nation’s players, I decided to do something similar to my Players to Watch in the Six Nations article, and expand that to each team of the World Cup. While I try to watch as much rugby as I can around the world, you’ll see that even I have blank spots as I select some players that may be bigger names in their teams, but they still may be lesser-known names to the wider public.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


Today, we’re moving onto Pool C

England

As someone who can’t go a day without talking English/Premiership rugby, it wasn’t easy for me to figure out who would be the lesser-known players in the England squad. I eventually settled on Joe Cokanasiga, who at 21 years old and with just 2 seasons of Premiership Rugby under his belt is still relatively unknown. While many of the England back 3 are fast, agile but not overly physical players, Cokanasiga relishes in the physical game while also having the speed to trouble defences. Assuming the defenders manage to successfully tackle him, they then have to hope he doesn’t get the offload away. With tries against Japan and Australia in the 2018 November Tests, expect to see him adding to that list during the tournament.

France

While Antoine Dupont deserves a mention, I’ve picked Damian Penaud here for Les Bleus. Capable of playing centre but often used on the wing for the national team, Penaud has 2 tries from 11 Test matches, including 2 in this year’s Six Nations. He really appeared to come into his own down the stretch for Clermont however, and I expect him to be even better now with more experience under his belt… assuming the rest of the team perform.

Argentina

Argentina are spoiled for choice in the outside backs, but one player who looked to have all-but secured his spot in the XV before injury was winger Bautista Delguy. At just 22 years old, the winger already has 5 tries from 11 caps, including 3 from 5 Rugby Championship appearances. Argentina will create chances but don’t always have the composure to finish them. Delguy on the wing gives them that.

USA

Having won the Pro12 with Connacht and spent 3 seasons with Sale, AJ MacGinty still goes relatively under the radar, but my pick here instead goes to Joe Taufete’e. The Worcester hooker has found himself stuck behind Jack Singleton in recent seasons, but has shown his quality for the Eagles with 20 tries from 22 appearances, making him the tight 5 player with the most international tries. With experience of his English opponents and a strong runner with ball in hand, Taufete’e is one of the players leading USA rugby into a new era.

Tonga

At 31 years old, Sione Kalamafoni is a well-established player, but despite plenty of years in the Premiership with Gloucester and Leicester, is someone who goes relatively under the radar. Kalamafoni has vital experience to help Tonga in a tough pool, while he will tackle all… day… long. On top of that, he also has a good turn of pace in the loose that will catch the opposition out if they leave him too much space.

Who are you looking out for during the tournament?


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Will you be picking any of these players in your squad?

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England brought their warm-ups for the World Cup to a close at St James’ Park on Friday night with a match against Italy. England started slow and were lucky to not go behind as Tommaso Benvenuti knocked on close to the line, Owen Farrell’s boot giving England a 9-0 halftime lead. Ben Youngs, who was much improved from last week, crossed the line early in the second half. George Ford was introduced for Piers Francis soon after (with Owen Farrell moving to 12) and this led to an improvement in England’s performance and tries for Joe Marchant, Ellis Genge and Anthony Watson, while the Azzurri were unable to get any points on the board, resulting in a 37-0 final score.

 

England

No offence to Italy, but this was never a match that England should be losing. As such, I think Eddie Jones dropped the ball here by not using the match to prepare his squad even more for the trials of a World Cup.

While it was great to see Ruaridh McConnochie finally make his debut, I feel that he should have been given the full 80 minutes to get used to international rugby, as he is now going to the tournament with barely any international 15s experience. Jack Singleton is going with hardly any more experience to his name and his recent appearances have been cameos in the back row – there was no need to risk Jamie George in this game with 2 other hookers available! Moving onto another specialist position, Eddie Jones decided to take only 2 scrum halves to Japan and name George Ford as their emergency 9. As such, I would have made sure he got some time practising the position in a Test match in case he is called upon during the tournament, and what better one than in this final game against an opposition that would probably be a little more forgiving if he made a mistake.

Saying all this, it was great to see Anthony Watson moved to the 15 position. Elliot Daly has not looked completely comfortable at the position, but Watson (admittedly under less pressure) looked very calm there and I think should be given the starting 15 spot, especially as Daly could move back to 13 if Henry Slade is not 100% ready to play.

Italy

It feels like every week I’m coming on here criticising Italy for their attack, but it just isn’t good enough. I’ve been very clear at how I think the attack needs more variety and it became clear in this match. A great multi-phase move off a lineout led to a great break through Seb Negri (who was fantastic in this match) and Carlo Canna, but once they got to the England 5m line the attack stalled and they were slowly pushed back over 20 phases until they spread it wide and Benvenuti knocked on just a few metres out. England’s defensive line comes up fast and Italy had no answer to it, but something as simple as a tip-on pass or an inside ball would have kept the defence on their feet and probably also forced them to commit more players inside, giving Benvenuti the space to finish off the attack and score the try. South Africa also favour a defensive line that shoots up fast, so Italy need to be looking at their tactics if they want to have any chance of upsetting the Springboks.

It wasn’t just the attacking tactics, but also the kickoffs that perplexed me. Every time, they were kicking long, giving Ben Youngs all the time in the world to pick his spot when kicking to touch. It may have meant that Italy were getting the ball back with a lineout, but it was never with good territory. Italy really need to look at varying their kickoffs to keep the opposition guessing, while also making some of the kicks more contestable or closer to the chasing players to try putting pressure on the moment the opposition catch the ball.


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Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Ireland – RWC2019 Warm-ups

As we speed towards the beginning of the Rugby World Cup, Ireland made the trip to London for their 2ⁿᵈ warm-up match against an England side that had faced off against Wales home and away in the preceding weeks. Such is the state of the World Rugby rankings, a win would see the Irish take the top spot from Wales for the first time in their history, despite a poor Six Nations. However despite taking an early lead through Jordan Larmour, tries from Joe Cokanasiga, Elliot Daly and Manu Tuilagi gave England a 26-10 lead, before a further 5 tries in the second half resulted in a comfortable 57-15 victory.

England

Eddie Jones has (rightly, in my opinion) come in for plenty of questions and criticisms over the last couple of seasons. Following this match, there may be more coming his way. Ben Youngs’ form has been questionable both for club and country over the last year, yet he has continued to not only be picked by Eddie Jones, but be picked as the clear starter! Against Ireland, he had an awful match. His kicks were often off target so that Ireland could take the ball uncontested, a poor pass in open play brought an end to an overlap on halfway and a series of 3 bad passes slowed down and eventually ended a promising attack that had made it into the Irish 22. The last of these passes was exceptionally awful as he took the ball, held the pass before deliberately playing it into a retreating Cian Healy to try and win a penalty for offside (cynical play that I hate seeing) despite there not even being an offside line due tot he ball having been offloaded out of the tackle. Willi Heinz’s introduction was a positive for England as his first touch of the ball saw him put in a contestable box kick that allowed Manu Tuilagi to smash Jordan Larmour the moment he landed with the ball, while many of his actions felt much more accurate.

Heinz has the playing style to be the starter at the World Cup, but he has just 3 caps to his name compared to Youngs’ 90 Test caps (88 for England, 2 for the Lions), which makes me think it is highly unlikely the Gloucester captain is given the starting spot in the big games, despite being clearly the form option. Given how quickly Danny Care fell down the pecking order after a couple of bad matches, it is hard to understand how Youngs looks set to start at the World Cup while players like Danny Care, Ben Spencer and Dan Robson watch on from home.

Ireland

The Irish have been very lucky with the way the World Cup pools feel together as they look very beatable at the moment. They are usually so solid in defence, but in this match were finding it almost impossible to stop the men in white. Time and time again, England found themselves with an overlap and took advantage of Jacob Stockdale often shooting out to try and stop the attack with a man-and-ball tackle rather than holding back to try taking away the space.

While I think part of this was from the team often defending from out to in, I think part of it as well was due to not dealing with the England players earlier in the move. With playmakers at 10 and 12, a physical presence at 13, a ball-player at 15 and 2 wingers who are happy to come into midfield for England, not to mention a pack full of willing carriers, the Irish were just finding themselves overwhelmed in midfield and this was leading to them getting caught too narrow as they tried to plug the gaps in the middle.

With most top teams now playing with at least 2 playmakers in the back line, Ireland need to find a way to shore up their midfield defence while not compromising themselves out wide, otherwise they could find themselves still in search of a first World Cup semifinal in 4 years’ time.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

With second row being a position of depth for Ireland, a couple of turnovers – including one as an England lineout transitioned into a maul – will have helped Iain Henderson make his case for inclusion in the squad. The struggles in the lineout over this match (Rory Best and Sean Cronin completed only 10 of their 15 lineouts in this match) could have just opened up a spot in the squad for Munster’s Niall Scannell, either as a 3ʳᵈ choice hooker or instead of Cronin if Joe Schmidt chooses to take only 2 hookers.

With the forwards struggling to sufficiently impose themselves on the game, it was a hard day for Ross Byrne and I think that his best chance of making the squad will be as a 3ʳᵈ fly half if Joey Carbery fails to recover in time. Meanwhile, the sight of Cian Healy leaving the field just before half time will certainly have the selectors nervous.


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Eyes On: Wales v England – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Wales v England – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Wales and England’s warm-up for RWC2019 continued Saturday afternoon at the Principality Stadium with the reverse of last week’s fixture. 7 days earlier, England had ran riot to build up a score before Wales could even get going, but this week’s match was a far closer affair, with George North’s first half try –  when England had just lost Anthony Watson to the sin bin – and Dan Biggar’s conversion proving the difference as they emerged 13-6 victors.

This result meant that Wales rose to #1 in the World Rugby rankings for their first time in history, knocking New Zealand off the top spot for the first time in 509 weeks! Congratulations!

Wales

As someone who prefers a more attacking fly half, I may not be the biggest fan of Dan Biggar (especially when he’s appealing for everything and making a fuss), but I respect him as a top quality international 10. However, this week former Wales international J.J. Williams decided to undermine Wales’ World Cup preparations by saying that Wales would not win the tournament with Biggar at 10.

Biggar used his words as motivation this week and put in a great performance. Defensively, Biggar is one of the best at his position and there are very few players – at any position, not just fly half – who are as accomplished under the high ball. Whether kicking out of hand or off the tee, he is highly reliable. What he isn’t, however, is Gareth Anscombe. With both of them, it brought a great dynamic to the team, with Biggar coming off the bench to either seal the victory or put Wales int he right positions to get the wing. With Anscombe now out, however, Biggar is the only top quality 10 in the squad and the running of the entire game will likely fall to him. Biggar starting means that a change in tactics is required, but I think that sometimes this tactic becomes too much of a kick-first game, which can sometime feel wasted – as with some of the early kicks that Elliot Daly took unchallenged. He will not work the back line in the same way, but that does not make him a bad player. He showed as much when Anthony Watson was sin binned by immediately taking advantage of the extra man, catching England sleeping – don’t listen to Ugo Monye, it was entirely legal and he did not have to wait for Watson to leave the field – with a cross-kick to Josh Adams that took them into the England 22, before another cross kick back to the left wing for George North to catch with only Ken Owens anywhere near him.

What did surprise and worry me during this match was just how long Biggar was kept on the field. This was not an experimental lineup that needed to build chemistry, and after losing Anscombe last week I think Biggar should have been wrapped in cotton wool. When he injured his shoulder, he should have been straight off, but it seemed that Warren Gatland was again more interested in winning a nothing game for ranking points compared to protecting his star players ahead of the World Cup. Hopefully it doesn’t cost them in the coming weeks.

England

It feels like we have been saying this for years, but there are questions over the England midfield. George Ford looked good last week with a pack putting him on the front foot, but struggled to create anything in this match, while Piers Francis and Jonathan Joseph were anonymous. Even Joe Cokanasiga had a relatively quiet game in attack, rarely being brought into the midfield. As a result, England failed to muster any attacks of note and finished with just 2 penalties to their name.

While having a big carrier at number 8 in the form of Billy Vunipola is a big help, England need a physical ball carrier in the back line to give them regular front-foot ball. Even if they are not taking the ball every time, they will be an effective decoy as defenders will have to account for them, leaving gaps somewhere in the defensive line. England really need to hope Manu Tuilagi can stay fit.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

Coming in late for his first Test appearance since the match against Australia that saw him get injured, Leigh Halfpenny had a solid game and put in a timely reminder of his abilities as a defensive 15, while Aaron Wainwright built on last week’s performance with a great shift at home, making good metres and keeping attacks going with some good offloads. With Faletau out of the tournament, I think he is a near-certain member of the squad after the last 2 weeks.

Wainwright’s place in the squad may come at the expense of fellow starter in this match James Davies. Cubby is an incredibly talented flanker whose 7s experience gives him a different skill-set to his rivals, however he has found his chances limited in such a deep Welsh back row and an enforced removal just 24 minutes into this match will have not helped his chances of making the 31. Anscombe’s injury may have opened the door for Jarrod Evans to make it onto the plane, however Gatland’s insistence at keeping Biggar on the pitch despite being visibly uncomfortable following an injury makes me think that he is hesitant to bring in the inexperienced Cardiff Blues stand-off this close to the tournament.


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Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: England v Wales – RWC2019 Warm-ups

England and Wales both got their series of warm-up matches underway with a match at Twickenham. With Eddie Jones selecting the 31-man World Cup squad the next day, England went for a heavily experimental side that became even more experimental with the late withdrawals of Henry Slade and Sam Underhill, while Warren Gatland chose to put out what appeared to be his strongest available squad. Given the selections, I thought that I was going to be in for a long afternoon watching Wales dominate, but instead England came out the gate with early tries from Billy Vunipola and Joe Cokanasiga on the way to a 21-7 halftime lead. Though Wales grew into the game, England kept the scoreboard ticking over in the second half through the boots of George Ford and Elliot Daly, resulting in a 33-19 victory that brought an end to Wales’ unbeaten streak and stopped them going #1 in the World Rugby rankings following New Zealand’s loss to Australia.

England

Remember the name Tom Curry, because he looks like he could be a star of this World Cup and the next 10 years. At just 21 years old, he has become one of the stars of the England squad and has surely nailed down the starting berth at openside flanker. In this game, he cut out the silly penalties that he was conceding in the Six Nations, and replaced that with a couple of great line breaks. He was everywhere on the pitch, to the point that I was beginning to wonder if Eddie Jones had snuck on identical twin Ben in a second 7 jersey – did anyone count the players?!

Fans will be worried about an injury that saw him substituted just 30 minutes into the match, but hopefully that was more a precaution from the coaches as opposed to anything too serious.

Wales

Every time the World Cup comes around, the buildup seems to involve stories about how Warren Gatland’s Wales are going to be the fittest team at the tournament. While their fitness has been undeniable for years, this match appeared to suggest that they have spent too much time working on fitness and not enough time playing rugby.

Despite being almost the same side that won the Grand Slam earlier this year, they looked a shadow of themselves, dropping off tackles left, right and centre – and not just against the big runners Tuilagi, Vunipola and Cokanasiga. The lineout malfunctioned something horrible on a couple of occasions, gifting Luke Cowan-Dickie a try right before halftime. Though they did get themselves back in the game, they never really looked like they would challenge for the win. While this may help them go into the tournament as underdogs, they need to get back to form quickly to get some momentum ahead of their World Cup opener against Georgia.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

So, as this section is looking towards the squad selections, I will not be looking at England here due to the having already selected their squad before I could write this. I do however want to take a moment to praise Lewis Ludlam, who looked completely at home on his first cap and Anthony Watson, who looked great on his return to international rugby following injury – hopefully we will see him switched to 15 for the next match.

For Wales, there were very few players who came out with many positives, but I think that Aaron Wainwright will be feeling happy after playing the full 80 minutes. With Taulupe Faletau out and question marks surrounding the fitness of some of his rivals, he has a good chance of making the squad. Tomos Williams was a late withdrawal through injury, but if he is fit he will surely have to travel as Aled Davies did little to impress, while Gareth Davies continues to struggle with his kicking game.

The clear loser from this match is Gareth Anscombe, whose World Cup dreams are over after injuring his ACL. He picked up a knee injury early in the game and I felt that he should have been removed immediately as a precaution, but he instead played on as the medics felt that he could run the injury off, which either proved completely wrong or caused things to get worse. Aaron Shingler came off the bench to play his first match since getting injured in the 2018 Pro14 final and while it is great to see him back (I’d heard rumours that his rugby career was over), he looked so far off the pace that it’s hard to imagine him being ready for the World Cup.


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England’s Magic Victories

England’s Magic Victories

For sports fans, Sunday 14th July is a day that will live long in the memory. Lewis Hamilton won a 6th British GP in a race that saw Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen praised for some of the best racing in years. The Scottish Open reached its end. The Tour de France continued towards its first rest day. England’s men’s and women’s rugby 7s team won their respective tournaments to qualify Team GB for the Olympics. New Zealand’s beat England to win the Women’s Rugby Super Series title and remain #1 in the world. Novak Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in the longest Wimbledon men’s final and England won the Cricket World Cup against New Zealand.

That win for Eoin Morgan’s men – by virtue of number of boundaries in the match, after the teams could not be separated over 50 overs and a super over – gave cricket one of its greatest finishes of all time and made England the only nation to have won the Men’s World Cups in cricket, football and rugby. While that stat may not be too surprising given the number of countries that play all 3 of these sports to an elite level, what makes this incredible is that all 3 of these victories have come following some form of extra time.

England’s 1966 FIFA World Cup victory saw them concede a late equaliser from Wolfgang Weber to make the scores 2-2 at the 90-minute mark, but 2 goals from Geoff Hurst in extra time – including one in the final seconds of the game – saw Bobby Moore lift the trophy as the nation celebrated a 4-2 victory.

The RWC2003 final saw defending champions and hosts Australia bring the scores level in the final moments, as Elton Flatly kicked a penalty to level the scores at 14-14. Extra time saw Flatley and Jonny Wilkinson trade a penalty each, before a Wilkinson drop goal won the game with just 26 seconds left on the clock.

Sunday’s final at Lord’s saw England hold New Zealand to a reachable total of 241, before struggling themselves with the bat. Requiring 15 runs from the last over, luck was on England’s side and they tied things up with the final ball, taking things to a super over. England got 15 runs from their over, but things got off to a bad start in New Zealand’s over as Jofra Archer started with a wide and was hit for 6 a few balls later. He tightened things up on the final balls though, leaving New Zealand needing 2 runs from the final ball to win. Martin Guptil got the first run to pull things level, but was unable to get back down the wicket quick enough and was run out, leaving the scores level and seeing England win through the tie-breaker of most boundaries in the match.

With all these matches, they have their moments that will be remembered for how differently they could have gone. Hurst’s first goal in extra time was an early case for goal-line technology, as the ball hit the crossbar, bounced off the ground and was cleared away, only for the assistant referee to decree that the ball had crossed the line. Ben Kay agonisingly dropped Matt Dawson’s popped pass with the try line at his mercy, while Wilkinson’s successful drop goal came with his weaker right foot after having missed 2 drop goal attempts earlier in the match. At Lord’s England’s saviour Ben Stokes was almost caught out in the penultimate over, only for Trent Boult to step backwards onto the boundary to turn the ball into a 6, while the next over saw an even luckier moment as a fielder’s throw deflected off his bat and reached the boundary to total 6 runs off that ball – though in hindsight it should have actually been 5 runs.

It’s safe to say England have had their fair share of luck, with the Rugby World Cup just months away, hopefully they haven’t used it all up at the weekend. Perhaps that will be England’s first victory in regular time. I’m not sure our hearts can take another close finish!