Taking stock of the 6 Nations it’s been an interesting tournament, writes Benjamin Pegna
The Eddie Jones factor appears to have taken effect and the turnaround the RFU were hoping for has been quicker than they could have ever imagined.
Wales were uncharacteristically flat in their biggest game against England. Scotland started the tournament slowly and finished well, whilst Italy and Ireland had to blood inexperienced players due to extensive injuries.
France took flak from all quarters, but showed more cohesion than they have for a long time.
England did everything that was asked of them – you can only beat the people put in front of you and it’s not easy to win five consecutive test matches.
With largely the same squad as the Lancaster era, with the exception of a couple of additions and a few adjustments, England appeared to have turned a corner.
Would the same progress have been reached by Lancaster if he had been afforded the opportunity to build on his foundations?
Lancaster was undoubtedly on the right track, the players, (with the exception of Itoje), the systems, the plays and improved culture were all areas he and his team had shaped over the last couple of years.
The decision to fire him was made on the back of England’s failure to get out of their pool at the 2015 RWC.
But this decision doesn’t stack up.
What divine right did England have to get out of their World Cup group ahead of Wales, Australia or Fiji (no offence intended to Uruguay)?
Wales with a more experienced squad, Grand Slam successes and Gatland and Edwards at the helm were always going to be almost impossible to beat.
Gatland and Edwards are serial winners – to doubt or underestimate them on a big stage is not wise.
Similarly, Australia had the Cheika effect and a good summer’s preparation on the back of the Waratahs being successful over the previous 18 months.
Fiji, are always dangerous.
So what realistic chance did England really have to get out of their pool?
Internally within the RFU expectations were low for this group of players for the RWC 2015, it was considered to have come too early for them.
Farrell, Ford, Joseph, Tuilagi, Launchbury, Watson, Nowell, Slade, Clifford, Itoje were always considered to be the class of RWC 2019, where that tournament was deemed to represent their best chance of success.
I imagine when Lancaster was taking flak from the media he would have loved to have been able to defuse pressure on his players and say something like: ‘This is a young team that we are planning to be successful with in 2019, and realistically we have lower expectations for 2015.’
But of course from a commercial point of view how could the RFU support him in that way and reduce supporters’ expectations, and effectively admit that this was ‘a transition phase’ and that they were not planning on doing very well at the RWC 2015.
This would have flattened the buzz around the World Cup and would have lead to the public having slim hopes of an England World Cup triumph and reduced ticket sales.
The bottom line was that unrealistic pressure was placed on a young team with an inexperienced coach to attain unrealistic results.
The already significant pressure of a home World Cup wasn’t relieved by the RFU, but reinforced.
A few months later with largely the same team, England have taken a few scalps. Commentators have stated that England are ‘playing more heads up rugby’, but actually has anything changed with their attack?
To most it doesn’t appear very different, there are few occasions of an individual taking on an opponent and playing off the cuff. The attack is still built around running ‘2nd man plays’ and block lines.
There are a few noticeable tweaks, one being that inside backs after passing to the players outside them are continuing their straight running lines to block the covering inside defence.
Nothing to put fear into an Australian defensive coach.
The statistics also point to a still rigid attack.
Against Scotland, England made 3 line breaks whilst Scotland made 7.
See the others data below.
|England’s line breaks||England’s tries||Oppo line breaks||Oppo tries|
From a statistical point of view, the defence appears to have been made stronger.
England’s defence under new coach Paul Gustard are already pushing higher up the field and more aggressively from the outside channels.
The one significant blemish being conceding 3 tries at Twickenham against Wales.
Eddie Jones has described his desire to get back to England’s strengths, a dominant set piece and pack, but I recall Lancaster’s team scoring from a maul off a lineout from about 35m out against the Springboks in November 2014 at Twickenham. It wasn’t a weakness in the Lancaster era.
That said Steve Borthwick has made a solid start and the lineout in particular is functioning well.
Jones has also identified conditioning being an area for improvement, and the likes of Billy Vunipola and several others appear to have a greater aerobic capacity indicated by their increased work rate.
Whether the RFU were wrong or right to remove Stuart Lancaster, there has undoubtedly been a positive effect from the appointment of Eddie Jones.
With almost all other factors constant – the players, infrastructure and the majority of the running lines – the notable change has been the coaching staff, led by Jones.
Professional sport is about many things, not least confidence, pressure and fine margins.
On another day if England were outscored by 3 tries to 1 at home they would have lost. If Dan Cole’s try against France had been disallowed, then the momentum would have shifted.
But they didn’t lose and his try was awarded. If, if, if… Fine margins.
So what has changed? Were England noticeably better or were the other teams just weaker?
The previously mentioned tweaks aside, only the mental state of the players remains to be considered.
The Jones effect according to all sources has brought the squad together, made them stronger and more mentally resilient. Jones’ confidence is no doubt infectious.
It does make you wonder what the players mental state was like previously under Lancaster, and actually what it is like in general, when the appearance of Jones, who is undoubtedly an experienced, hardworking and meticulous coach, profoundly transforms individuals’ outlook and the team’s success.
Doubts were raised about the mental fragility of this playing group prior to RWC 2015 when players within the squad expressed concern that other players from outside the squad might challenge and take their place.
The previously mentioned Billy Vunipola, one of the players of the tournament, showed marked improvement.
Aside from his fitness, his play indicated he had clear direction and knew what was expected of him and had the licence to carry that out.
But additionally he looked like a man who felt appreciated, happy in what he was doing with no self doubt.
The art form of giving players clear direction and the confidence to implement what you have asked them to do would appear to be priceless.
Above all else, the appointment of Jones illustrates the fine margins between success and failure, and the effect of confidence.
By changing the coach, the players’ outlook has been completely transformed and the same players have become potential world beaters overnight.
Time will tell what the mental resilience and toughness of this group is and how long the Eddie Jones effect will last.