England’s Autumn Nations Series 2022 campaign did not go to plan. After a challenging and chastening month of rugby at Twickenham which saw England win just one game, we’ve taken a look at how England can get back to winning ways ahead of the 6 Nations 2023 and the Rugby World Cup later in the year.
After all, less than six months ago England had romped to a 2-1 series victory Down Under and having come back against the Wallabies from a 1-0 series deficit, England fans had high hopes for the Autumn.
Senior stalwarts like Billy Vunipola looked to be getting back to somewhere near his best, Henry Arundell’s sensational debut in Perth wowed the rugby world and star fly half Marcus Smith was fulfilling his potential and growing rapidly into the England No.10 jersey. With a solid gameplan that downed a decent Australian outfit, combined with the impact of young talents like Arundell, scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet and full back Freddie Steward, this English rose was starting to grow some thorns.
That was until the first game of the Autumn Nations Series when Los Pumas were in town and on the prowl for some English beef. Raw physicality and unbridled passion is the modus operandi for Argentina and after having already taken down the All Blacks away in Christchurch, a confident Argentina side took to their task with glee. Despite a hard-fought contest, the men from South America escaped with a 30-29 victory.
England’s win over Japan was a bright moment for England fans, but upon deeper dissection, the 52-13 score line glossed over what was actually a fairly tepid display, which really said more about the quality of England’s opponents than it did about the English performance. Granted, “you can only beat what’s in front of you” but pruning these Japanese Blossoms was a job for secateurs…for the All Blacks the following week, England would need a chainsaw.
When Dalton Papali’i’s intercept try silenced the 82,000-capacity Twickenham crowd, it looked like another tough day in the office for England. Had it not been for a Beauden Barrett sinbin and a blistering last 10 minutes which saw England run in three tries to snatch a 25-25 draw, there would have been little positive to write home about.
One win, one draw and one defeat with world champions South Africa yet to play. This however was a weakened Springbok unit with six of their best recalled back to club rugby. As legendary British Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan said on that infamous tour in 1997, “a wounded Springbok is a dangerous animal” and England felt the South African wrath. A comprehensive 27-13 defeat was far from the ideal way to end the series and with just two short months until the start of the 6 Nations, had many supporters and even our own ambassadors Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Greenwood questioning how England could get back on track.
Like any professional team, injuries play a huge factor in performance and with England’s current casualty list, you could almost field an entire XV! In the forwards, captain Courtney Lawes didn’t see the field this autumn and when you add Ollie Chessum, Nick Isiekwe and Charlie Ewels to the second-row injury list, this severely impacted England’s options in the pack. England have also struggled with balance in the back-row and haven’t been able to find the right blindside flanker to complement Billy Vunipola and Tom Curry. Lewis Ludlam, Alfie Barbeary and Sam Underhill could have all filled that Number 6 spot and after impressive performances, it was a real shame Alex Dombrandt wasn’t able to compete with Billy Vunipola for the Number 8 position.
In the backs, Bristol livewire scrum half Harry Randall succumbed to a dodgy hamstring, George Ford was out with a long-term Achilles injury and Henry Arundell, who would have almost certainly started on the wing this Autumn damaged bones in his foot just weeks before the international action started. Owen Farrell, Jonny May, Jack Willis, Tommy Freeman, Jamie George, Will Stuart and Joe Cokanasiga were all initially left out of the squad due to injury, but recovered enough to play some part in the action.
With such a significant proportion of players injured or recovering from injury, England’s Autumn results are perhaps not a true representation. Given a full complement to select from, England boast more talent than most, but keeping those players fit and firing is key for the England management.
OVERLOOKING IN-FORM PLAYERS
Pocket-rocket Adam Radwan has been an absolute menace on the wing for Newcastle, Joe Marchant has consistently been a top performer in the centre for Harlequins and back-rower Ben Earl was named Premiership Player of the year in 2021-22 but all were deemed surplus to requirement by Eddie Jones. Full back/winger Max Malins has also found some form for Saracens and after a long injury layoff and switch of club from Bath to Leicester, Anthony Watson was also overlooked. Raffi Quirk has also been a revelation at scrum half for Sale and despite being included in recent squads, was not included on this occasion.
Also not considered for selection were seasoned campaigners like Joe Launchbury and Elliot Daly who surely could have added to the group in both experience and versatility. Given the amount of talent England didn’t even call into the squad, questions must be asked about the selection process.
ROUND PEGS FOR ROUND HOLES
Selecting players in their best positions seems obvious but Eddie Jones has consistently played some of England’s best players out of position. Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje are an incredible second-row partnership so why when you have two players of this world-class calibre does Jones invariably select one at blindside flanker? Having never played blindside before, Sam Simmonds was asked to fill the role against New Zealand, and it simply didn’t work either. Northampton second-row Alex Coles occupied the blindside position against South Africa and England were again exposed in this key area of the pitch.
Owen Farrell has played his best rugby at fly half but England’s desire to shoehorn Marcus Smith into the 10 role has pushed Farrell into his less favoured inside centre position, meaning Manu Tuilagi (a more natural inside centre) is played at 13 with no room for Henry Slade. Under Jones, England’s best midfield combination has been Farrell at 10, Tuilagi at 12 and Slade at 13. Any other arrangement and at least one key player is out of position.
At just 23, prodigy Marcus Smith would be much better suited coming off the bench after 50-60 minutes. His attacking flair and vision is a nightmare for tired defenders and could have a much more positive impact as a finisher rather than a starter. Smith is undoubtedly the future fly half for England but balancing the midfield is paramount if England are to be successful.
SETTLED STARTING XV
The England management selection policy means that England haven’t fielded the same starting XV since the semi-final and final of the Rugby World Cup in 2019! “How are the players meant to build relationships and combinations when they’re so rarely selected together?” questioned Will Greenwood who himself played alongside Mike Tindall for years in the England centre. Think about the great combinations in rugby…Gregan and Larkham, Little and Horan, Nonu and Smith to name but a few – all played together for years and built an understanding which helped them thrive in the pressure cooker situation of test match rugby.
Injuries of course play a role but finding a settled starting XV is vitally important should England be successful in the 6 Nations 2023 and beyond.
Tactically England have been found wanting against the better nations – whether it be aimlessly kicking away vital possession, a general lack of impetus and intent or being too slow and unoriginal, England have lacked the strategy to win consistently against the big boys.
England’s normal strength in the engine room at set piece has also been nullified by recent opponents – the scrum has at times struggled for parity and England’s pièce de résistance, the catch and drive rolling maul from the lineout has also become predictable and easier to defend.
With the attacking prowess at England’s disposal, fans are screaming for Eddie Jones to release the handbrake and play the quality of rugby seen so fleetingly under his tenure. Small strategical changes and an injection of tactical confidence would certainly benefit England ahead of the 6 Nations.
LACK OF DISCIPLINE
During Eddie Jones’ tenure England’s discipline has been poor to say the least – a continued stream of yellow cards and unnecessary penalties has contributed to England’s form. Whether it be loss of field position, giving momentum right back to the opposition or shipping needless points from the boot, England must improve their discipline.
Take Tom Curry’s yellow card against South Africa for example – pushing over Faf de Klerk in front of the referee was a complete ‘head’s gone’ moment and cannot be tolerated at the coalface of international rugby.
Keep the penalty count down, keep 15 men on the pitch and England have a much better chance of success whoever they may face.
Whilst England’s Autumn display was far off the pace expected, there are still several positives for England supporters. The injury list should improve and if England’s talent pool is utilised correctly, they are more than a match for anyone, including the high-flying French and Irish.
England fans should also take some comfort from the resolve and determination it took for England to drag themselves out of the mire against New Zealand to salvage a draw. Staring a battering in the face, England showed real character against the All Blacks and we need to see more of that for the upcoming 6 Nations.
What’s for sure is that the 2023 edition of the 6 Nations will be a thrilling tournament and we can’t wait for the action to get underway in February.