Eddie Jones admitted England remain a “work in progress” in learning how to break their opponents down after another “clunky” display in their victory over Wales, but the troubles of a side that just recorded its seventh consecutive victory points to a much larger crisis that is emerging within rugby union.
The England head coach insisted before the weekend’s 24-13 victory over Wales that his coaching team are not yet focussing on progressing their play with the ball in hand when it comes to building towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but after watching a hit-and-miss display in Llanelli, he accepted that they have not developed as much as he expected this autumn.
The seven-month hiatus following the coronavirus pandemic has certainly contributed to that, but for the first time since international rugby returned last month Jones expressed a frustration with England’s inability to cut loose against an inferior side – something shared by many during the Autumn Nations Cup.
Wales put up a brave fight at the Parc y Scarlets, but the truth remains they are a team deep in their biggest transition period in more than a decade and without a victory over a top 10-ranked side this calendar year, such has been their drop in form since reaching the World Cup semi-finals a year ago.
AUTUMN NATIONS CUP: England beat Wales to reach final
That’s why Jones’s delight at beating Ireland last week wasn’t really evident following a victory in Wales that, given recent results there, is always welcome. But the issue was that this time around England had the lion’s share of possession and territory, yet had very little to show for it.
“It’s a combination of things,” Jones said. “It’s your ability to capitalise once you have broken the line to quickly get into the position to move the ball to where the next space is quickly or get momentum again.
“Our next phase after a linebreak today was not as sharp as it needed to be. It’s always a combination of factors.
“For example, George Ford made a linebreak and we got turned over. Our support players were not chasing hard enough. That’s a bit about playing the rugby that is in front of you rather than playing to a prescription. That’s something that we have been working on consistently but we are not quite there yet.”
It is the biggest criticism of a sport that does not seem to know it is in a crisis. International rugby’s shift to online subscription platform Amazon Prime Video has coincided with a drab and quite frankly boring tournament. That is not a slant on the unions who organised the Autumn Nations Cup - the concept itself was very welcome after more than half a year without Test rugby – but nine games in there has been very little to write home about. The loss of Fiji to the entire group stage was a clear reminder of the times we now love in, but it robbed the tournament of its most intriguing ingredient - a team that doesn’t quite conform to what the international game has become.
Saturday’s encounter in Wales was probably the pick of the nine games so far, but it was hardly a classic. The development of athletic phenomenons from one to 15 means teams are significantly harder to break down today than they were only a few years ago, and it will take a change to the regulations to bring back the excitement of fast and loose rugby.
“We have got 15 incredibly athletic players who are all trained to be bigger, faster and stronger and the field has not changed size,” added Jones. “When I played rugby 30 years ago only seven people defended the field because you had eight people at the ruck. Now we have got 15 players able to defend the field, it is just getting harder and harder to break them down.
“Defences are coming off the line harder so you have got to attack rush defence, which is a new set of skills that our players are slowly developing. We still have a long way to go which is good for us.
“If you get consistent quick ball and good set-piece ball, you can break down rush defences. We are working on that very industriously at the moment but it takes time. Attack takes more time to get sharp and process than defence does, so we are a work in progress there but I’m delighted with what I’m seeing at the moment.
“The game swings and comes back. It can swing in a couple of weeks with a slight interpretation at the breakdown. We saw the 2015 World Cup was great rugby. They were very hard on the tackler rolling away and I still think referees could be harder on the tackler rolling away.”
England made five clean line breaks against Wales. One of those produced their opening try after man of the match Sam Underhill collected the ball from Maro Itoje and combined with Kyle Sinckler to knock Wales on the ropes before wide ball allowed Henry Slade to score. But two others went without reward, the first when George Ford benefitted from Underhill linking up with Curry in midfield and the second when Ben Youngs collected a deliberate knock-on from Ryan Elias to try and put Anthony Watson away.
Neither chance came off though. Ford found himself penalised for holding on after having just Jonathan Joseph for support that allowed the Welsh defence to steal possession, while a knock-on following Watson’s chance allowed England to come back for the penalty that Owen Farrell kicked from distance. Regardless, they both came under the microscope for the players themselves who are aware attacking rugby has become harder than ever before.
“When we’ve done that on the back of getting momentum we’re just playing heads-up rugby and it’s kind of just been a bit clunky or we’ve not been able to sustain momentum,” Youngs admitted.
“It’s certainly the bit I’m feeling out on the field. We’re blessed with some great ball carriers who get us on the front foot but then when we get momentum on the back of it we haven’t been as in sync or as fluid as we’d like and that’s probably been the disappointing thing.
“You still have to fight like mad to get the ball back. The try we actually scored when Unders (Underhill) got it on the inside and gave it to Kyle, that ruck was so slow when we wanted it lightning quick, because as soon as the line break happens you’re hugely vulnerable.
“The same with Ant Watson down the right touchline. You think he’s going to finish it, he gets tackled and we’re trying like mad to try and get the ball. It’s just the jackal threats at the moment. The breakdown is so fiercely contested that after any line break I almost feel like we’re more vulnerable than any other part of the game.
“It’s definitely difficult. The breakdown is now so fiercely competitive, it’s ferocious. The chance to get quick ball is limited to a degree. it’s highlighted by the fact you make line breaks and you’re still unbelievably vulnerable. Previously if you made a line break all the odds were on you to go and finish it. There’s certainly a shift in the balance. It’s not going to change, certainly not soon.”
But if this is supposed to be the offering to a brand new market of fans through rugby’s Amazon expansion this year, many may come to find themselves asking if they have been sold a dud.
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