England ran up their 12th win in a row at a packed out Twickenham with a big win over Fiji, and while there were many good points, there is still improvement to be made
By Alex Shaw
Another game down, another win added to the streak.
Yes, England collected their 12th consecutive victory on Saturday – their 11th under Eddie Jones – when they wrapped up a 58-15 defeat of a disjointed Fijian side at Twickenham, but just how much can the Australian take from it?
It’s a hard performance from England to accurately quantify.
For all that England did well offensively, Fiji’s lack of organisation defensively – given their lack of preparation time – mitigated it.
That said, they can only beat the team in front of them and this game marked the end of a tendency that England have had for some time now of playing down to their opponent.
For the most part, Jones’ men kept their concentration up and played at a good level throughout the game, but the notable exceptions were the 10 minutes prior to half time and the five minutes following it.
That 15-minute spell saw England concede 15 points via three tries, offering up only three points in opposition. Both Nemani Nadolo and Leone Nakarawa are due credit for their effective attacking play during that period but it was a lack of concentration and communication on defence that soured an otherwise very encouraging performance.
This is the area where England will have significant work to do ahead of the visit of Argentina to Twickenham on Saturday.
Defence coach Paul Gustard was brought in to instil the high intensity press that Saracens display week in, week out and whilst there have been flashes of it, it is yet to be fully embedded within the squad. The line speed is getting there and the outside blitzes that force play back inside are beginning to emerge, but the communication and trust is still short of where it needs to be.
It’s here, above all other areas, where Maro Itoje, George Kruis and James Haskell have been most missed this autumn, despite Chris Robshaw continuing to rise to even higher standards of play with his defensive work rate and leadership.
Missed tackles are a misleading metric without the context of when and how they occurred within the game, but England’s return of 80% completed tackles – 25 missed – was not good enough, even against an opponent as adept at breaking and evading tackles as Fiji.
English pressure told
The contrast to that – and the start of the positives for England from Saturday’s encounter – is that they forced Fiji to an even lower number, with the Pacific Islanders completing just 65% of their tackles.
England ran with purpose and power for the 65 minutes of the game that sandwiched their defensive lapses and amassed 126 metres more than Fiji with ball-in-hand.
Jones had said England would bore Fiji to death if necessary and two tries did come directly from driving lineouts but it was the efficiency and ability to quickly generate width when running the ball, a hallmark of Fijian rugby, that caught the eye about the England performance.
Ball retention was also impressive, just as it had been against South Africa a week previous. For all the tries, self-belief and set-piece stability that has come with Jones and his new coaching team, England’s ability to protect their own ball has been the most important development under the Australian’s stewardship.
Second-choice starters performed well
The new starters – Teimana Harrison, Semesa Rokoduguni and Alex Goode – all took their chances well and have put their hands up for consideration for selection against Argentina this week.
Harrison put himself about in the first half, matching the Fijians’ physicality with his own and dispelled the memories of his showing in Australia earlier in the year. He was pulled for Nathan Hughes early in the second half and the Fijian-born loose forward carried on right from where Harrison left off in the first half. Both players should be in contention with Tom Wood for the seven jersey this week.
Goode’s performance was noteworthy, with his tendency to take the ball to the line in two hands constantly causing the Fijian defence problems. He cruised in for a try, directly set up another and contributed to two more by joining the back line and bringing his playmaking skills to bear.
Mike Brown has yet to let Jones down in an England jersey but Goode could not have done much more on Saturday to push the Harlequin for his starting spot. A misjudge on the opening kick-off aside, Goode was the epitome of security and counter-attacking threat at the back for England.
Roko grasped his opportunity
The one new addition to the XV who may have done enough to push his way into Jones’ favoured starters was Rokoduguni. The Lance Corporal gouged the Fijian defence for big gains and two tries, thoroughly deserved his man of the match award and offered a more physical presence than England’s regular wings, not least so because of his piston-like handoff.
With Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell still injured, there’s every chance Rokoduguni retains his spot for the visit of the Pumas, with Elliot Daly and Marland Yarde also in the mix.
England will likely revert to type to take on Argentina, fielding a XV similar to the one that took on South Africa, but a fit-again Jonathan Joseph and in-form Rokoduguni are strong bets to feature, whilst the training ground battles between Goode and Brown and the trio of Hughes, Harrison and Wood will be fun to watch this week.
England broaden their skill-sets
The overall takeaway for Jones and his coaches will be a positive one, despite the defensive frailties in the middle of the game.
Key areas of the English game that have been perennial problems ever since their triumph at the 2003 Rugby World Cup, such as efficient handling, ball retention and decision-making, are all improving.
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England’s win streak has been extended to 12 games, more players have been blooded in the Test arena and are showing signs of thriving in the environment and the experience levels of the group continue to rise as they aim to peak in three years’ time in Japan.
A win over Fiji shouldn’t prompt the champagne corks being popped, but just as the victory over South Africa was a week ago, another step forward has been taken by England.