2020 was England’s year. A Six Nations title and the Autumn Nations Cup to boot, England were still on the top of the pile when it came to northern hemisphere rugby. 2021, on the other hand, has not been kind to Eddie Jones’ men. England have played three matches so far this year and have looked unsteady on every outing.
Scotland defeated England at Twickenham for the first time since 1983 in their season opener, followed by their annual victory over the Italians and a defeat to a Wales side that, whilst looking better this year, finished fifth in last year’s Six Nations table. What is going wrong in the England camp to have gone from a side the finished second in the world and dominated northern hemisphere rugby, to struggling to even find their form?
The Saracens Aftershock
When it was announced that Saracens would be relegated from the Gallagher Premiership, everyone’s first thought was ‘What does this mean for their England internationals?’. Well, as of 27/02/2021, Billy Vunipola is the only current England International to have played a single minute of Championship rugby and it shows. Against Wales, Maro Itoje lead the game in penalties conceded with five. The nature of Itoje’s uber-athletic style of play from the second row means that he often plays on the edge of the law. Combine this with a blatantly clear lack of match sharpness and Maro Itoje goes from world class player to penalty magnet in the blink of an eye.
Billy Vunipola is another player whose form has very clearly suffered due to this lack of match sharpness. He himself acknowledged his lacklustre performances prior to their loss against Wales and vowed to rectify this. This certainly didn’t happen against Wales. Was he more effective? Yes, he was, but this was perhaps a skewed performance from the way he was utilised in Eddie Jones’ game plan.
You saw, without fail, every time the ball was kicked long by Wales to England’s back three, Billy Vunipola would drop in between and receive the first pass. He would then run with added momentum at a Wales defence and, to be fair, this led to him leading the game in run metres. Off of his 15 carries, however, he only actually beat 3 defenders and his uptick in run metres was likely inflated by his runs from deep.
These are just two examples, but all the Saracens contingent have suffered in their play to some degree. Owen Farrell lacks the solidity and consistency that we have come to expect from him, Elliot Daly’s already notable weaknesses at Full Back have been magnified and Mako Vunipola has been ineffectual in his play. While Jamie George has maintained a more recognisable level of performance, the writing is on the wall for Eddie Jones, he must become less reliant on the usually dependable Saracens players that make up the core of his squad.
This leads to a criticism of Eddie Jones that has persisted even when England have been successful, his unwillingness to select form players from the Premiership. Many accuse Jones of selecting players based on name value rather than their playing form. Not to flog a dead horse, but Billy Vunipola is often cited as the biggest example of this.
Look at last year’s Six Nations for instance, rather than selecting a specialised number eight, Eddie Jones instead utilised Tom Curry there. To Curry’s credit, he performed capably there, a testament to his quality as a player. However, the consensus among fans and pundits alike was that one of England’s promising young eights was being underutilised in favour of a less than optimal selection.
European Player of the Year Sam Simmonds and Harlequins standout Alex Dombrandt are two young, hungry, and talented players that would be more than capable of performing for England at a high level. Not to mention the likes of Marcus Smith, who is currently making a case for the England ten jersey that cannot be ignored. At the end of last season at age twenty-one, Smith scored his five hundredth Premiership point, second only to England legend Johnny Wilkinson. You feel that in any other case, numbers like this would be rewarded with a senior international call up.
Speaking on BBC’s Rugby Union Weekly Podcast (Linked here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09836zt), former England Scrum Half Matt Dawson suggested that England may be riding the wave of success that came from the 2019 world cup. He makes a compelling argument and the podcast is more than worth a listen if you’re interested. This does beg the question, are England resting on past glories? As a coach that, historically, has instituted a kind of siege mentality in the England camp, you’d think that Eddie Jones wouldn’t let that happen. However, as Dawson says, despite their 2020 success, England weren’t as effective in 2020 as they were in 2019 and this downward trend has only continued into 2021.
What Dawson says may have merit. In an environment where many of your first choice starting fifteen can rely on selection even when they haven’t played a competitive match in months, there may be less of a fire lit under players to want to hang onto their shirt. Compound this with Jones’ unwillingness to select much emerging talent and you perhaps have a breading ground for complacency.
One of the keys to a successful international team in any sport is creating an environment which emphasises the fact that it is a meritocracy, that there are people lining up for your place in the squad and that if you put a foot wrong then they have a chance of getting it. Based on the evidence we have; can you really argue that the England team is a meritocratic environment?
When push comes to shove, England need to turn around their poor form. Ultimately, if they don’t, it will be Eddie Jones’ head on the chopping block. Can England turn it around, or, perhaps more crucially, will Eddie Jones do whatever it takes to turn it around? Only time will tell.
What do you think? Has this England squad passed the point where it can compete with the best of the best? Is Eddie Jones the man to take them forward? Should the Saracens contingent be a part of the squad moving forward? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below. If you liked this post, see the link to our other Rugby Union stories below. Share this article and start a discussion.
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Where the stats were found for this article: https://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/playerstats?gameId=593101&league=180659