Why England's 2018 Six Nations hopes came to a bitter end, how they could have been prevented and how Eddie's England move on.
The French once again break English hearts, denying Eddie Jones' England a chance to claim the Six Nations in an all or nothing clash with Ireland at Twickenham next weekend.
In the days leading up to 'Le Crunch', fans across England debated their excitement of Anthony Watson starting at fullback, Jamie George at hooker and Ben Te'o in the centres. Alas, dishevelled Englishmen and women left the Stade de France having observed the worst English performance in years, more disappointing perhaps than their side's pool stage exit in a home World Cup. A lack of creativity in attack, leadership on the field, discipline and a high error count were the Achilles heel once thought fully rehabilitated under Jones' appointment in 2015. The side that won a Grand Slam and a 3-0 series in Australia seem a distant memory.
One of the biggest kickers for captain Owen Farrell and his charges will be the fact their round four loss came against poor opposition. The French have at times in this tournament shown they have the ability to keep any side within touching distance until the final exchanges, forcing the reigning champions Ireland to resort to a Johnny Sexton drop goal in overtime. However, this is not something England can fall back on. The French were woeful at set piece and conceded almost as many penalties as their Anglo-opponents, letting slip 11 law infringements to England's 16.
Eddie Jones heads into the final round of the tournament with the aura of invincibility once surrounding the Australian coach pulled apart from the threads, having begun it's deterioration at Twickenham last year in the face of the Italian fox manoeuvre.
We take a short trip down memory lane. February 2017, Italy flaunt a loophole in the laws to cause no ruck to be formed upon tackling their opponents, allowing the Azzurri to stand in an otherwise offside position on English ball. An intelligently designed game plan that saw England resemble rabbits in the head lights. Dylan Hartley and his men failed to adapt in a time period befitting their reputation, exposing the first glimpse of what we have come to know as one of the most prevalent issues in the English game.
Jones will have to address the issue that his side simply fails to react to adverse situations, failing to observe, analyse and rectify. Something both Ireland and the All Blacks have proven capable of. This kind of intelligence comes with time and can be fixed by sticking with your systems and learning. While it is poor that they have failed to do so, their impressive win/loss ratio under Jones has proven both a blessing and a curse. Pressure creates diamonds - when whipped, cream rises to the top - when the going gets tough, the tough get going. All cliches rolled out from sporting arenas to the big screens in Hollywood, yet a lack of adversary under Jones up until now has rendered these particular cliches irrelevant to England. In short, they have been the victims of their own success, lulled into a false sense of security. Undoubtedly, England will swallow this bitter pill and move onwards, but whether it will be enough to lift the trophy in a World Cup final is yet to be seen.
However, England's abject performance cannot be blamed on this lack of adversity alone. Suggesting this to be the sole reason for their downfall would be short-sighted and must not be permitted. Flaws in Jones' selections were easily overlooked during his first year, with the 100% win record vouching for a handful of questionable decisions.
The first of which is Jones' decision to include only two scrum-halves in his training squads. Many warned that should either of Ben Youngs or Danny Care suffer long-term injuries, the lack of a third halfback would cost England. Many will be sick to death of hearing the term 'finishers' banded about over the last 24 months, but it is a mindset that has borne much fruit for England under Jones. Care ended 2017 as the joint highest try scorer for England alongside wing Elliot Daly, able to use fresh legs and a clear head to spot the chances for both himself and the men around him whilst facing opposition put through the mill by the starting XV.
When at their best, England win their games or extend their lead in the final ten minutes through fast paced, explosive, attack-minded individuals injecting their particular skillsets into the game. The selection of Richard Wigglesworth as Youngs' injury replacement in the match-day 23 is in direct opposition to this philosophy. When England needed the same booster shot against Scotland and France, Wigglesworth failed to orchestrate proceedings as Care had whilst replacing Youngs in the final throws of test matches. Had Jones included Wigglesworth regularly throughout his tenure, the Saracen may have been embedded enough into the English system to step into a starting role, with Care remaining on the bench for his impact role.
Adding to this issue was the inclusion of Jonathan Joseph and Mike Brown on the bench in Paris. Both have been reliable parts of the England engine under Jones, but are far from the titles of 'impact subs' compared to the likes of Ben Te'o and Jack Nowell.
Sticking to the theme of selection issues, it feels as though the decision to continuously select a second row at blindside has come to a belated end. While Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje have brought plenty of physicality and options in the lineout, the mobility and breakdown prowess they lack has proven too costly for Jones to pursue with playing three locks. For the second week running, England were outclassed and bullied at the breakdown, with Joe Launchbury, Itoje and Lawes all too gangly to secure their own possession or contest opponents ball as effectively as the likes of Sam Underhill or James Haskell. Jones must bring the 34-year-old Haskell back into the starting lineup, having impressed upon his first appearance in an England jersey for nearly a year.
Jones took the decision to drop Joseph from the 13 jersey in favour of former rugby league player Te'o. While the 31-year-old's physicality was a factor Jones correctly identified his side were in need of, the New Zealand-born centre proved that shifting one position wider severely hampers his game. Once George Ford left the field, Owen Farrell shifted to fly-half and Te'o returned to his usual position of inside centre. England's midfield seemed to have clicked, with Te'o able to impose the type of game that saw him rise from surprise inclusion to test starter in the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand over the summer.
Te'o has a tendency to gravitate towards the centre of the pitch and simply can't implement his game whilst in the outside centre channel. Jones faces a decision on whether he abandons the dual-playmaker strategy or returns to natural selection at 13.
There is plenty for Eddie Jones, the England coaches, players, and fans to ponder. Being grounded at such force will in the long run benefit the side, exposing the issues that have for so long hidden under the surface.
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