World Cup Forecast: England’s Boom Or Bust Struggle
England have found themselves in a somewhat droll situation in the lead up to the World Cup later this year. At times, they could have been regarded as good enough to overturn the All Blacks with their awesome power, but their capitulations against their Celtic rivals could serve as a precursor to World Cup disappointment
Having placed the New Zealanders under extreme pressure last November, putting Ireland to the sword, crushing France in spectacular fashion and getting off to a blistering start against the Scottish in scoring four tries in just 30 minutes, they presented themselves as a terrifying prospect. Unfortunately, this impression has been presented in truncated fashion, it’ a boom or bust struggle with little in-between.
Second half performances against both the Welsh and the Scottish have provoked flashbacks to the performances that saw England finish fifth-place in the tournament last year. When all their stars are fit, England have the ability to beat any and all World Cup contenders, but their inability to adapt in adversity and change tact has become their foible.
When all is well for England, two Vunipola brothers, Kyle Sinckler, Maro Itoje, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi bring unrivalled power. Owen Farrell, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly provide a healthy playmaking presence, while Jack Nowell, Jonny May bring the running and finishing threat. To top it off, when in form Ben Youngs has one of the better box-kicking games on the international scene. But, once their physical edge is matched and a smart defence shuts down Farrell’s and Youngs’ kicking game, momentum turns torpid.
Blame will be laid at Eddie Jones’ feet for this inability to react, but it is worth noting that the Australian is challenging his squad to adjust with minimal coach input. Briefly, we flashback to 2016. Ahead of a tour to Australia that would result in their historic 3-0 whitewash, Jones was lauded for his efforts in promoting problem solving within his player group without the input of the coaches.
The former Japan, Australia and Saracens boss noted that once his players are on the field, there is little that a coach can actually do to effect change. While this particular narrative has dropped from all discussion within the media, the side are sure to have been sticking to this approach. Viewers will have noted that instead of heading straight down the tunnel for a briefing at half-time, the starting XV now huddles up to address the past 40 minutes, bringing forward their own views and solutions before Jones and co can have their say, ultimately, taking the lion’s share of responsibility and these half-time huddles are the latest addition to their process.
So the criticism directed towards Jones is not that he is incapable of reacting to change himself, but perhaps that he has gone a step too far in his campaign to make his team independent on match days. Whether this is an achievable goal for the national side is the key question and potential area of criticism here.
England seem as likely to kick on and solidify their success as to allow the seeds of doubt within their game germinate, spreading through and corrupting the hard-earned positives built over the last three years.
If England are to truly compete for the Webb Ellis trophy in seven months time, the reinstatement of Dylan Hartley as captain may well be crucial. While there is little substance to criticism of Farrell’s ability to lead England, releasing him of a captain’s responsibilities might be a smart step in allowing the side’s lead architect freedom to focus on adapting structure.