Alistair Stokes believes England's biggest issue lies in intensity, not selection and coaching.
Dump the players, dump the coaches, abandon all hope. Such are the conversations littering social media and fan forums across the internet. While there are flaws in the selection and coaching principles of England head coach Eddie Jones, the biggest issue facing his side is a lack of intensity.
When George Ford and Owen Farrell have started in the playmaking 10-12 combo and results began to go awry, the clamour for Farrell and Ben Te'o came to the fore - such was the impact of the latter off the bench. On Saturday, we saw Farrell and Te'o starting, seeing an end to the dual playmaker game plan, temporarily. Since Farrell and Te'o were a part of the losing side at Twickenham, the outcry from the fans has shifted yet again. The widespread desire for the reunion of the Ford-Farrell axis is back after the playmaking duo showed promising impact off the bench at Twickenham against Ireland. Both combinations have their merits and their flaws, but will eventually result in the same outcome if intensity is not addressed.
The common denominator in the promise of both partnerships is not the playmaking combinations or the addition of a hard carrying inside centre, but the injection of energy from the bench. Whether Te'o arrives with fresh legs to barrell his way through defences or Ford arrives unfatigued and ready to light the spark to ignite a try, their energy levels and clear minds fresh with coaches' instructions are the difference.
England are failing to recreate the intensity their Irish counterparts demonstrated at Twickenham last weekend. On the rare occasion the energy levels are lifted from the first whistle, it often results in unnecessary penalties. Loose and manic would be more appropriate when describing the English as opposed to the organised ferocity of Ireland, and the All Blacks for that matter.
While Ford, Farrell and Te'o are the easiest examples to highlight, the issue is not isolated to the midfield alone. The English pack failed to effectively break the Irish defensive line, only enjoying such success in isolated bursts, all of which resulted in three English tries.
It feels that no matter what playing staff Jones had selected on Saturday, the same problems would have been present. Controversially, I do not believe even Billy Vunipola would have brought the impact many are suggesting. The younger of the Vunipola brothers is a wrecking ball and arguably the best on the international scene at what he does, but would have struggled to impose his game in that side. His enthusiasm and carrying are both equally as important to England, but both would have been anaesthetised on Saturday.
Lions tours, brutal club seasons and over zealous training days can all be attributed to this issue and must now be addressed. While clubs have the right to play their England players week-in week-out, they are their assets after all. Premiership sides must show more sympathy towards the sheer volume of rugby their stars are enduring. Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola and Courtney Lawes stand at the forefront as prime examples of players flogged for both club and country, in desperate need of a decrease in workload.
That is not to say the clubs alone are to blame for England's issues, Jones himself must be held accountable for an oversight in the vigour in which he prepares his squad. While his desire to set his side on a path of superior fitness is well reasoned, his execution looks to have stepped the mark. The Aussie must now lower the intensity placed on the players' bodies and replace it with a heightened level of skill development. England's forwards need up-skilling and should attempt to emulate the handling levels shown by their own loosehead, Mako Vunipola. Ben Te'o should also be included in this group, struggling on Saturday to bring a passing game befitting his test pedigree. The training can still be a positive, setting the bar high for the future and showing the players the levels to which can push themselves. However, it must now be tailed off.
Jones had the right idea, training at a higher intensity than competition is a common practice in professional sport. However, it is more appropriate for non-contact sports. The mental stress of performing every week in a team sport is far more demanding than that of athletics, cycling and many other sports in which this model is used.
The unenviable task for the England coaching team now is getting the best out of their players. For starters, the return of the bullocking backrower, Billy Vunipola, would be one factor that is required to getting back on track. His personality on and off the pitch and his hulking-carries have an inspirational influence on the team around him. Jones finds himself in a hole, largely dug by himself, and faces a monumental task in picking the right blend of players, coaches, training methods and game plan. The suggested changes soon to come from fans and media will consist of a monumental level of variation and will be the most telling factor of the job at hand.
No matter the changes in playing staff and strategies, if Jones does not find a way to level out the intensity, everything else will eventually come up short.