While not quite on a par with Rishi Sunak and his upcoming budget, English rugby also has some sobering statistics to address this week. Even the greatest Wales sides never stuck 40 points on them in Cardiff and only once this century have England leaked more points in the Six Nations. For all the difficulties of lockdown life, it is the starkest of bottom lines.
The first thing to emphasise is that Wales fully deserve to be sitting pretty: two wins away from a grand slam having dished out a lesson to their visitors about thinking clearly and smartly under pressure. Whatever anyone says about the first-half officiating decisions on Saturday, the 16 unanswered points scored by Wayne Pivac’s side in the final quarter speak volumes.
Given the gathering gloom in Wales last autumn, it is a turnaround which reflects extremely well on Pivac and his returning senior players and gives Eddie Jones’s England much to contemplate.
Where is the English equivalent of Alun Wyn Jones, the cool-headed colossus whose shrewd leadership has been so integral to his side’s Triple Crown success? Or even Callum Sheedy, whose nous, accuracy and spark off the bench enabled Wales to finish the job so triumphantly? It was not all the fault of Pascal Gaüzère, prominent though the French official may have been.
How interesting, too, that England actually looked better in some respects than they have for a while. What is undermining them is not individual talent nor character: it is the team’s collective identity and personality that needs recalibrating. To be in the empty stadium at pitch level was to discern a striking difference between the sides: England were shouty, frenetic and frequently at odds with the referee. Wales, in contrast, spoke less often, were tactically much cuter and achieved considerably more.
If there is a recurring theme since England crashed and burned in the World Cup final, look no further. It hardly helps that Jones continues to hail Owen Farrell as an oval-ball messiah while referees tend to see him as a very naughty boy. If Gaüzère made life tougher for England, Farrell could easily have double checked whether Dan Biggar was kicking for goal before turning to address his troops. And, given what unfolded later on, did anyone actually listen to his lecture about not conceding needless penalties at key moments? When things go against England they have developed the costly habit of doubling down on their errors.
Which is why they now sit in the bottom half of the Six Nations table, having lost against both Scotland and Wales in the same championship campaign for only the second time in 37 years. “Credit to Wales for capitalising but our discipline wasn’t where we’d expect it to be,” said Ben Youngs, among England’s better players on the day and impressively honest afterwards. “It was very similar to when we played Scotland. That’s the most disappointing thing and it’s something we need to get hold of quickly and eradicate.”
Watching the litany of last-quarter penalties back is to diagnose two possible causes: bench players such as Ellis Genge, Charlie Ewels and Dan Robson vainly striving to make an instant impact, and a widespread struggle to see the bigger picture. After Henry Slade, who also had a good game, had pinned Wales back into their own 22 with a deft left-foot grubber, a opportunity clearly presented itself to squeeze the hosts and force the kind of late win that was once England’s speciality. Instead Wales were allowed easy outs and Sheedy, abetted by a better drilled pack, showed why he could soon become a starting regular.
Might it help to persuade England’s management that drafting in fresh playmakers is not necessarily a crime against the state? In Wales’s case it is self-evident that Sheedy, Kieran Hardy, Louis Rees-Zammit, Willis Halaholo et al have added zest and genuine energy, rather than the empty white noise that England increasingly favour.
At this rate Wales will feel anything is now possible in the next three weeks; for England it is time for a rethink even if Jones still believes there is no reason to panic: “I think we are going in the right direction. Everyone is going to have an opinion – and some of them might be right – but the important thing is what goes on in the team. We know how hard we are working and we know what direction we are going in. We will get out of this.”
Looking back over the past 12 staccato months, though, the evidence suggests England’s slide will not be easily reversed unless Jones takes a deep breath and, as in 2018 after his side’s fifth-place finish, grasps a few awkward nettles. No one disputes Maro Itoje is an outstanding player, so would making him captain help him to become a more responsible citizen at the breakdown? Ben Earl, Max Malins, Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds, Paolo Odogwu ... all should be Test starters in 2021, some sooner rather than later.
Conversely, now might be the time to give a few Saracens players a break, even if it has an impact on their Lions tour prospects. How many English players would currently make a Lions Test 23 anyway? Perhaps half a dozen – Itoje, Tom Curry, Kyle Sinckler, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola and Henry Slade – while a dozen or more Welshmen are starting to batter on Warren Gatland’s door. Leaving aside the grim numbers, it is time for England to stop looking at themselves through rose-tinted spectacles.