England puffed and panted over the line to register a record 15th win, with Eddie Jones saying it was an ugly win, so is there work to be done ahead of Wales?
The England pack lacked balance
England have been renowned for their strength in depth but the eight men they chose to give their backs a platform didn’t work, despite Eddie Jones’ protestations that he’d got his selection right. Undoubtedly, injuries have weakened England from the starting eight out in Australia but there will be raised eyebrows if the same pack starts for Wales. For all the pre-match hyperbole about Maro Itoje’s skillset to play at six, the absence of the durable, dependable Chris Robshaw that was keenly felt.
With no experience at blindside at Test level, Itoje looked far more comfortable in the engine room. Another square peg in a round hole was Tom Wood, who is better suited to No 6, giving away too many penalties. The other big miss, quite literally, was Billy and Mako Vunipola, who give England all-important gain-line domination, something they could not re-create. We’ll come onto the next amigo, James Haskell, later…
France regain their va-va-voom
So long derided in the Six Nations – they’ve finished in the bottom half for the past five years – Les Bleus finally resembled a side with the huge player-base and infrastructure of a Northern Hemisphere giant. In short, they punched their weight, with Louis Picamoles at the forefront of their attack, repeatedly punching holes in England’s defence as he targeted the smaller Ben Youngs and George Ford.
Eddie Jones was fulsome in his praise for Guy Noves’ men, and in the backs, Baptiste Serin dictated the tempo, allowing Virimi Vakatawa, Scott Spedding and Noa Nakaitaci to hit angles, roam and give the side width. France comfortably ran up more metres than England – 586 to 455 and for those a little longer in the tooth, who get misty eyed when talking about flair players Thomas Castaignede, Serge Blanco, Philippe Sella, it made the heart flutter to see them playing an expansive, offloading game. Encore, Guy…
The Bench Factor
Eddie Jones impressed on the waiting media, prior to the game, that England’s bench was the strongest in the world, and while the All Blacks may contest that assertion, the cavalry did their job effectively. Jamie George, introduced first, upped the ante from Dylan Hartley, who was clearly lacking game-time after his disciplinary woes.
The introduction of James Haskell whipped up the Twickenham crowd, and his muscularity and effervescence lifted the team. At half-back Danny Care added zip and a sense of urgency with England needing points, while Ben Te’o gave the midfield the punch it’s been lacking since Manu Tuilagi’s untimely absence and Jack Nowell careered round with his customary zeal, to leave England finishing like a train. Expect several replacements to be pushing for starting places for Cardiff.
Farrell assumes centre stage
Owen Farrell was seen as one-dimensional early in his career; a controller and kicker, but not a runner, yet in the last 18 months he has matured into the full-package. One of the most technically gifted kickers in the world game, he has a varied passing game, timing his looping pass to Elliot Daly to nearly put him in the corner and deep into the second-half, standing up to the rampaging Louis Picamoles with a thunderous tackle that drew hand-shakes from his team-mates.
When Te’o was introduced, it was George Ford was hooked and Farrell moved inside to 10. Jones has outlined is leadership qualities and he was publicly backing Farrell to guide England home. It would surprise no one if Farrell became England’s next captain. The question is now not if, but when.
Eddie Jones takes responsibility and deflects heat away from his players
We’ve become accustomed to Eddie Jones’ quip-laden press conferences – a godsend for journalists – but his sparky repartee also takes the heat of his players. Firstly, he took full responsibility for England’s deficiencies – sluggish start, lack of go-forward and poor lineout – and then backed his players – in public, at least. Maro Itoje, who had an uncomfortable time at 6 was described as ‘fantastic’.
He was also quick to push the the agenda forward to Wales, while he bought time to navigate his way through the trickier questions over his side’s lacklustre performance. Jones knows he can say what he wants, as long as England keep winning. He’s now 14 from 14 and he knows a loss is coming, “you can win by a hundred points one day, and get out to a duck the next day”. Whatever happens in Cardiff, it’s been a remarkable old run.