So as the Autumn Internationals approach let’s take a look at the previous 10 months in the England camp and see whether one of Europe’s top sides can make the leap and become a serious challenge to the All Blacks in the 2019 rugby world cup. Here at Gainline Rugby we never want to look biased so this will be the first of 4 parts focussing on how the four home nations are faring mid cycle between World Cups.
Let’s start with the coaching staff and the obvious place to begin is Eddie Jones, in my opinion the premier head coach in World Rugby, his record speaks for itself. Coaching the Australian national team to the Rugby World Cup final in 2003, ironically only losing to a late Jonny Wilkinson drop goal in extra time, to having a huge influence as assistant coach to Jake Whites world cup winning South Africa team, Eddie rarely fails. Where he really proved his worth was in japan where let’s face it, he took an unknown team of no hopers and turned them into a well drilled force that played to their strengths and managed to shock the Springboks in Brighton on that sunny Saturday afternoon, probably the biggest shock in World Cup history. It’s hard not to wax lyrical about the former Randwick man as every time I hear him speak I love him more, fiercely competitive, incredibly knowledgeable and not afraid to tell people how it is. In Eddie I think England have got the head coach absolutely right. Why don’t we have a look at Jones’ team, firstly, Steve Borthwick, a young, exciting coach that seems to have packed so much experience into such a short coaching career, having been Jones’ assistant in Japan and also touring with Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions team. In his playing days Borthwick was known for being a shrewd operator at the lineout and his coaching is no different with the former Bath and Saracens lock really transforming England’s lineout into one of the world’s finest, it seems it matters not who throws and who jumps, Borthwick’s lineouts just work.
To the scrum, another relatively young man in Neal Hatley, the Premierships most capped player with London Irish and a fine prop in his day. This is another area of strength for the red rose, the set piece is really well looked after and with so many good props at the minute the Natal man must love his job. You can actually see that the England pack seems more reactive at scrum time, using their heads as well as their muscle to dominate other teams.
Last but not least in the Eddie Jones trio of assistant managers, Paul Gustard, the man in charge of the defence. This fella absolutely loves defending, you could see that in his playing days with Leicester, London Irish and Saracens, he was never one to shy away from a bit of the rough stuff, which IS maybe why his career was so blighted with injury. To his coaching resume, his time at Saracens can only be described as incredible, building the “wolf pack” alongside Brendan Venter they produced one of the great defences of modern times and laid the foundations for the current success Sarries are enjoying.
In his assistants jones has gone for young, English(ish) and technically sound, he has got it spot on for me and this team is absolutely up there with the brilliant All Blacks set up. I am just hopeful that they can all learn from Jones, and one of these can take the reins when Eddie has had enough.
With the coaching team being well selected let’s have a look at the player base used in 2017. In all Jones used 57 players this year, forced to stretch his resources with many English players being selected to tour with the Lions. Today well go through and look at positions and see how the English players weigh up against their southern hemisphere counterparts.
The props, England at the minute seems to have an abundance of looseheads at the moment but in Mako Vunipola I truly believe we have the best number 1’s in the business, great in the loose and has really upped his scrummaging game under Hatley’s tutelage. Almost equally impressive is the standard of the two understudies, with Joe Marler and Ellis Genge really pushing Mako all the way. Tighthead isn’t quite so well stocked with steady Dan Cole and the exciting but often erratic Kyle Sinckler. I personally think we have the best all round front row unit in the world and can only be pushed by the fantastic Irish front row.
Hooker, certainly a talking point here with the brilliant Jamie George going head to head with the skipper Dylan Hartley. I think there’s no doubt anymore George has overtaken Hartley in playing terms but never underestimate the importance of a good leader, and who can drop a winning captain?
Second row, another unbelievably well stocked position with, George Kruis, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury and of course Maro Itoje all fighting for a starting position. You could almost change the locking combination every game depending on who you play, that’s how tight the calls are here. But any combination are pushing the very best in the world with only Etzabeth and Retallick able to come into this team and improve it.
Back row, with big Billy Vunipola spending and increasingly long time on the physio table England may have to start to look elsewhere for a number 8. Nathan Hughes being the obvious man, the man currently in possession of the shirt but I’d love to see Sam Simmonds the young Exeter 8 given a chance. At flanker I can see a change of the guard happening, with Eddie having gone for the two 6.5s in Haskell and Robshaw so far is it time for him to go for an out and out 7 with bath’s Sam Underhill and Sale’s tom curry able to fill that role. Back row is a position I think we are slightly weak in at the minute, with the exception of Billy Vunipola, I believe the southern hemisphere has us beat, with likes of Pocock, Hooper and the exceptional Keiran read really being the benchmark.
Scrum half, the six nations saw England stick with two trusted names in Ben Youngs and Danny Care but with care now in his 30s is it time to bring fresh blood? Jones seems to have his eye on the young Exeter 9, Jack Maunder, could it be his time to shine? I think Care and Youngs are both great game changers but from a distribution standpoint they don’t compare to Aaron Smith or Will Genia.
At fly-half this year we’ve pretty much solely seen George Ford in that position. Incredible front foot ten with an almost telepathic understanding of where to put the ball for runners. He’s in direct competition with Beauden Barrett here and unfortunately, no one compares to the All Black 10.
There has been an array of centre partnerships this year but the first choice seems to be Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph, with the distribution skills, kicking and hard-hitting defence of Farrell and the fleet-footed skills and lightning pace of Joseph it’s easy to see why, but this autumn may see a change with both Elliot Daley and Ben Te’o really standing out for the Lions. The summer tourists of Slade and Francis did well but I can’t really see them pushing for a starting place. I think the foursome of Farrell, Joseph, Te’o and Daley is a real quality asset for England and is good enough to go toe to toe with anything the southern hemisphere has to offer.
Now, the back three, the excitement of the team. England so far have stuck with Mike Brown at fullback, Anthony Watson on one wing then either Jack Nowell or Jonny May on the other but with many calling for time on Browns England career could we see all three? Watson can comfortably switch to 15, having played a lot of his time at Bath their or will there be a change with the try scoring machine Denny Solamona? I personally think he needs more time to learn the intricacies of wing defence in Rugby Union but saying that I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make an impact off the bench at some point. I really believe Watson is a class act and I think a move to 15 will only improve his game, on the wings I think we probably don’t have the freakish size some of the other nations have but in May we lack no speed and Nowell we lack no bottle.
Looking at our coaching set and squad I think England are in a fantastic place mid World Cup cycle, we without a doubt have a fantastic coaching set up in place and that aligned with the strength in depth England seem to possess we can do damage to the very best of teams. With Eddie in charge and seeing what he did with Japan I believe England will stand a real chance come the Rugby World cup in japan but we will have to wait and see with the big three down south bring to the party.
Thank you for reading Gainline Rugby’s guide to England “mid cycle” and let us know what you think Englands chances are.