24 wins out of 26, but is England’s sweet chariot in danger of losing a wheel?

Two consecutive 6 nations titles,  a clean sweep away against Australia and a possible 24 wins out of 26 matches – nobody can argue that Eddie Jones 2 year tenure as England coach hasn’t been successful.

But why does England’s trip to Paris this weekend feel like it is a must win match?

There has been a sense that Englands 6 nations campaign has provided more questions than answers.

Handed a comfortable start away against the Italians, England’s next matches against Wales and Scotland have produced scratchy, questionable performances suggesting that England’s sweet chariot is in danger of losing a wheel.

Goong into the Wales match the expectation was that England would comfortably outclass a patched up Welsh side – the result, a narrow victory where England were clearly hanging on. Without a very dubious decision from the TMO, England couldn’t have had too many complaints if they had emerged on the losing side.

Fast forward two weeks and a first half humbling against Scotland depicted an unravelling of a structured game plan and a defence that simply could not get to grips with Scotlands energy and chaos.

As an Englishman who calls Scotland his home – trust me there is no scalp that the Scots want more than a win over England. However England knew this.

As the game was quickly slipping away there didn’t seem to be any recognition of the way the game was going or an answer to the Scottish defence. England seemed jittery, unable to manage the pivotal situations and unable to cope with the boisterous Murrayfield crowd.

For the first time in the Jones era, England looked lost and poorly prepared.

The thing I love most about Eddie Jones is his personality and spiky attitude, I think he has made his England team embrace the “arrogance” label that is attached to the them by their 6 nation rivals.

Under Stuart Lancaster the impression was that England were too nice. They were a team that seeked public reapproval following a spate of controversies through the Martin Johnson era. They were a side that was too nice to win the big matches and overcome the big moments.

Jones’ England are different, they snarl, they bite and they swagger. Often embodying the very image that their rivals hate. However despite this, there is a sense that England are still very much a WIP.

As an ardent England fan I often find Englands lack of discipline frustrating. This years championship has seen England commit 32 penalties. Compare this to 30 by France, 13 by Ireland, 25 by Scotland and 18 by Wales. Through ill discipline, England are struggling to gain an advantage in the territory battle and put the squeeze on their opponents.

Rewind to the start of the second half at Murrayfield. England got the start they wanted through an Owen Farrell try but for the next twenty minutes they were often camped in their own half. Any forward progress quickly erased by silly errors, poor decision making and costly penalties. This wasn’t the England side we had become accustomed to watching.

There seems to be several issues hanging over the team.

Does Jones know his best centre partnership? Jonathan Joesph seems to be constantly in and out of the side and Ben Teo is still to produce a commanding performance that would see him shift his “finisher” tag.

Do England have a game changing back row? As Martin Johnson bluntly put it after the Scotland game. Games of test match rugby are won and lost at the breakdown.

John Barclay simply dominated the game line winning numerous turnovers. Do England have a player able to do this? Rewind to the 2015 World Cup and the work done by David Pocock and Michael Hooper. There furraging work was the foundation of their success. England at the moment don’t have the game changers to win the turnover battle.

Lastly, do England have the flair to produce moments of magic?

Englands dominance under Jones has come about through their ability to control rugby matches. The Italy game aside – England have struggled to assert consistent pressure on their opponents. It almost seems that every England game is planned and plotted by the minute. X substitution will be made at this minute, if less than 40 metres from the posts we kick for goal etc…. This is all well and good when England are on top and dominating, but as showed against the Scots a few weeks ago, when they are behind the 8 ball and losing control, this England side started to question themselves and seemed to lack ideas and a plan B to get back into the game.

Fast forward to this weekend and England probably couldn’t have wished to play anybody worse. France in the process of what seems like a countless rebuild will be a sticky prospect.

France will certainly feel like they can trouble England in front of what will be a vociferous Paris crowd. There unpredictability and formidable pack could cause England major headaches.

Remember France were only one swing of a Jonny Sexton boot away  from a memorable victory over Ireland and they will be after something similar when England rock into town.

England will be favourites and they should win. However like the Scotland game it is a lose lose situation. They are expected to win  but if they lose this will be the first time that Jones and his side will be under real scrutiny. World Cup success in 2019 will seem an uphill task.

With Ireland still to play who might be chasing a grand slam, this feels like a pivotal weekend if England are to keep their faint dreams of a 3rd 6 nations title alive and their World Cup preparations on course.

A defining match where Tottenham can’t afford to be the nearly men again

This Wednesday sees Spurs face Juventus in the second leg of their last 16 champions league tie. After a dominant display (the first 10 minutes aside) in Turin – many pundits and fans would expect Spurs to progress at Wembley.

Many pundits this week including Glen Hoddle have stated that Wednesdays game is a defining moment in the clubs history. Yes, Spurs have reached the quarterfinals in the UCL before but this Spurs team is different.

The Spurs  under Redknapp were a good side – but the feeling back then was that the good season they had was a bit of a one off. That side were viewed as top 4 contenders but they were still a little way off being viewed as genuine title contenders.

This side is different, the past two seasons have seen Spurs challenge for the league title, play champions league football consistently and challenge in the FA cup. Currently, in the league they are on a 17 match unbeaten run and are starting to look like the side many predicted could challenge for the title at the start of the season.

Despite Pochettino downplaying the need for a trophy – this spurs side has to start competing consistently for titles. In my lifetime this is the strongest Spurs team I have ever had the opportunity to watch – with world class talents such as Kane and Eriksen still to potentially reach their peak – Spurs fans know that in order to keep these talents, the titles need to follow.

If you had asked Spurs fans  at the start of the season what represented their best chances of silverware – the majority would have targeted domestic success. Only the most optimistic Spurs fan would have believed that Champions League glory was a realistic target.

Having been drawn in a group with Real Madrid and Dortmund the consensus was that Spurs would do extremely well to sneak into the second qualifying spot. However, the way they qualified by beating Dortmund home and away as well as the inspired 3-1 dispatching of Madrid, put Spurs firmly in the conversation as potential dark horses for this seasons champions league title.

Fast forward to the 15 minute mark in Turin and it had appeared  that Spurs Achilles heel had returned. Spurs were once again over awed by the occasion and seemed to shrink in the atmosphere. Panic had set into the Spurs side and after 15 minutes it looked like a case of how many they would lose by.

But instead what happened next surprised me and pundits alike.

Juventus thinking that the tie was already done, dropped deep and allowed Spurs to start playing. Dembele was majestic – Kane a constant threat and Eriksen  produced arguably his best performance in a Spurs shirt.

Spurs emerged with a 2-2 draw which was a result that flattered Juve and it felt that a corner had been turned. It was a performance loaded with maturity and heart and put the rest of Europe on notice.

Ar Wembley Spurs have a real opportunity to progress. If they can beat Juventus and add them to the prestigious names of sides that Spurs have already dispatched – why couldn’t this side have a chance of progressing further in the competition?

A kind draw could see Spurs face teams like Liverpool, Man Utd, Roma or Shakhtar or even Chelsea. Of course there are no easy games at this stage but these teams shouldn’t have Spurs quaking in their boots.

Wednesday will determine that Spurs are a side who can genuinely compete and potentially win trophies at the highest level or  it will be another moment where Spurs are the nearly men.