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.