England on track: is rugby coming home this year?

The last decade of English World Cup rugby has seen much controversy and little consistency. 2011; England’s ‘antics’ and ‘off-field’ distractions took over Martin Johnson’s grasp of their World Cup. From ball swapping to inappropriate comments, England’s time spent south culminated in a £3,000 fine awarded to Manu Tuilagi for taking a disorderly dip in an Auckland harbour. 2015 was different but no less disappointing. Headlines left England with nowhere to hide after becoming the first host nation not to make it past the group stages. In addition, England had never before failed to progress to the knockouts, this defeat was potent.

So, to those who ask, ‘What are England’s chances this year?’, there really is no clear answer.

On perhaps the most level playing field a Rugby World Cup has ever seen; in a nation where conditions make the sport seem foreign to even the most seasoned of teams, what will make or break this World Cup for England?

Firstly, the team. Between the 35 men who played in the Six Nations earlier this spring, the now 31-man squad has some substantial changes. An entire reshuffle of the back row sees Marler, Ludlam, Underhill and Heinz replace Shields, Hughes and Saracens’ Ben Earl. Jones’ technical paring of Underhill, now wearing six, and Tom Curry will prove useful in the humid conditions.

Their merciless contest at the breakdown has earned the duo the nickname ‘Kamikaze Kids’ and with humidity upping handling errors, the slower ball and carrier become prey for England’s back row. Anthony Watson comes back from injury to fill a critical position in the wings. With pace and a magnetic attraction to the ball, himself and Daly repeatedly diffuse and exploit aerial attacks. Heavy commitment on the defensive line leaves room in the back field. Players like Watson are key to unlocking opposition territory and will use mobility and speed to keep theirs safe.

It is important to note the Saracens’ presence in the England line out. Jones’ use of the London side’s cohesion, calm and deadly accuracy indicates a focus on teamwork rather than the use of individual players. With Kruis calling the shots, England will be poised to shut down well-rehearsed opposition set pieces. Itoje, committed to earning his place in English Rugby history, relishes physicality. With a Saracens pack mentality fuelling his drive for contact, the lock works seamlessly with his clubmates to dominate in the air and in the maul.

Jones, however, does not pick players. He picks a team. The noticeable exclusion of the Rugby Players’ Association Player of the Year, Danny Cipriani, has raised questions. A diamond in the rough, his exclusion demonstrates that without other, tested players to bring into the squad with him, he as an individual does not meet Jones’ criteria. Further, Daly moves to full back after the top choice ‘Quin, Mike Brown, came to heads with Ben Te’o. Brown said, ‘we’re not in Jones’ head so we don’t know what cost me selection’. However, this would not be the first time Brown’s personality had got in the way of his rugby.

At the time of writing, England sit comfortably at the top of Pool C. With one game in hand there is no doubt that their Tonga opener and clashes with U.S.A and Argentina have been demonstrative of England’s power and flexibility as a team. However, is it sensible to define  England’s prospects based on three very expected victories? Perhaps not.

Jones has an answer to this though. Coaching Japan, he reduced contact time and upped line speeds to make room for breaks – the perfect style of play to suit a smaller side. When with the Springboks, his focus was on kicking, height in the line out and sheer physicality. His Australian side were essentially playing Aussie Rules.

Jones takes what makes a team a team and feeds it. The question then is this – can Eddie Jones inject the England side with the arrogance and pride for which they are so famed? If so, his team, built from strong combinations of individual players, may just come upon the momentum that carried England over the line in 2003.

 

Image: Diallo 25 via Wikimedia Commons

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