After watching the most lacklustre opening weekend to the Six Nations in recent memory, none of the games had me as riled up as, predictably, the England-France match on Sunday. As an avid rugby fan, especially as an England fan, this game had me whinging and moaning in the same manner as my passionate-yet-ignorant dad. I can’t help but cringe at the memories less than twenty-four hours later.
I admit, I may not be as ‘qualified’ or experienced as some who have tried to pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong, but as a dedicated rugby fan of over 15 years, I feel as though my opinion might be valid. Or I’m just venting after such an embarrassing defeat. Same difference, I guess.
During the wee hours of last night or this morning, I came up with the three main elements I believed to have lost England the game. Firstly, there was Ben Youngs.
The selection of an older, more internationally-experienced scrum-half might have been a wise one, if said scrum-half could boss about the forwards and organise the set-piece. Youngs did neither. The admirable defence of the French side required either more ingenuity or more well-performed basics from Youngs, and he seemed to teeter between the two. For instance, the 15 phases of attacking play from England in which they lost 20 metres to the opposition and eventually kicked the ball (admittedly a decent tactical decision). Youngs constantly set up pods of forwards to take the ball off the ruck and try and gain ground or draw defenders. But every single ball carrier received the ball whilst stationary. Let’s do some basic maths. In fact, why use number at all? If one man charges another stationary man, who will go backwards? Ta-da! You guessed it. The laws of physics prevail once again, and the running French defenders consistently drove back the static English forwards. England looked sluggish and unmotivated as a result. It is the responsibility of the scrum-half to boss the forwards, organise them and direct the blunt instrument at their disposal, and in that regard, Youngs was extremely lacking.
Next, we have Jones’ selection of three second-rows and two flankers. With the injury of Billy Vunipola, England’s first choice Number 8, Jones opted to not bother replacing him at all. He instead played a backrow of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Courtney Lawes. All three of them are great players. All three of them are not a big ball-carrying Number 8. That’s what Vunipola excels at, he’s large, quick to accelerate and good at offloading. Whilst being awesome defenders, Curry, Underhill and Lawes are not players you can create an attacking set-piece from. The use of a big ball-carrier is essential to most of the moves we’ve seen from England since Jones took over, either as a wrecking ball to bludgeon a defence, or more often as a decoy ‘dummy’ runner to draw defenders and create some space for the rest of the backs to play in. Whilst the three players performed fairly well in defence, particularly in the second half kick-chases, their play style was still one of a hard-tackling and rucking flanker, not a ball-carrying Number 8.
Finally, there’s the injury to Manu Tuilagi in the centres. His latest return from injury resulted in another injury. Simply another footnote in the wasted potential of a brilliant player. The loss of such a physical centre seemed to put the backs at a loss. As explained above, big ball-carriers have been essential in England’s set moves for some time, and with Tuilagi gone in the first ten minutes and no potential Number 8 to pick up some of his workload, England’s attack became almost one-dimensional.
These three factors may not cause too many issues individually, but when all occurring in the same game, they created one of the worst England performances we’ve seen since the 2015 World Cup.
Rugby is quite a simple game. At its most basic, attacking can come directly (near the ruck), from mid-field (fly-half and centres) or on the wing (normally exploiting overlaps). With the potential for a strong mid-field attack lost, France’s defence was able to predict most of England’s moves. And with Ben Youngs unable to galvanize and apply the forward pack well, a direct attack from the forwards was ineffective. The wing was the only avenue of attack for England, as we saw Johnny May prove. The game seemed to pick up with the replacement of Willi Heinz, who quickly beat the forwards into shape, marks the only decent display of rugby from England. It’s only a shame that it appeared in the final twenty minutes.