Five talking points from England’s Six Nations Grand Slam triumph
Eddie Jones’s side are strong at the breakdown and dominant at the set piece but must evolve into a disciplined, front-foot team to succeed in Australia
Coaching -The England head coach, Eddie Jones, almost looked in the post-match media conference as if he were explaining another botched tilt at the grand slam, although his downbeat tone faded when he was asked by a New Zealand reporter if his side could beat the All Blacks. "Of course, just not yet," was his reply.
Jones has never been one for the moment, always plotting the future, and he knows that the rest of the year will be a step up: the summer tour to Australia is followed by four matches at Twickenham in the autumn, although the All Blacks are not on the bill with South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia at HQ. One question Jones will be putting to himself is whether to bring in another backs coach, an area he has worked on alone. It has brought clarity behind but given him a hefty workload.
Personnel - Jones has been more fortunate than his predecessor, Stuart Lancaster, in terms of injuries with even Manu Tuilagi back in the fold by the end; those that did change his selections, Jonny May and Joe Launchbury, worked in his favour with their replacements, Jack Nowell and Maro Itoje, making a significant impact. Jones predicted after the victory over France that the team would look different within three years as more young players forced their way into the side. The back-rower Jack Clifford has been blooded this tournament and the coach’s message in victory was that nothing stays the same and no one’s place is safe. What worked in the Six Nations will not necessarily do so in Australia and beyond.
Style - England have largely used the same players who bombed in the World Cup: Itoje and George Kruis are two notable differences in the second row, intelligent forwards of controlled aggression who are precise in what they do. Jones has operated without a gainline breaker in midfield, although he now has the option of Tuilagi, and although the back row has lacked pace, it has blended with Billy Vunipola providing the power, James Haskell clearing out and Chris Robshaw mopping up.
The breakdown has become a collective effort with the backs, led by Mike Brown and Owen Farrell, winning vital turnovers, as they did in the final 20 minutes in Paris. England’s passing has been a cut above this tournament with the ball getting to the wings, even if it remains the weakest area of Brown’s game. England are more opportunist now, but their game has been based, especially in the final three rounds, on stopping opponents: the future will involve taking the game to them from the off.
Concerns - Discipline is the main one. England conceded 16 penalties in Paris, some of the offences wilful, such as slowing the ball down after a tackle, and they were fortunate not to receive a yellow card. That they got away with such a high penalty count against them during the tournament said a lot about its overall quality, and the France head coach Guy Novès said after the match that while he did not think there was much difference between his side and those below England in the table, he rated the men in white a cut above.
They will need to be more disciplined in Australia where the home coach, Michael Cheika, will not be coy in telling referees what to look out for. The back row will be looked at (Jones said before the Six Nations that while Haskell was an ideal 7 for European rugby, it would be a different matter against the All Blacks) and the midfield with Tuilagi and Henry Slade fit again. The Grand Slam is just a start.
The Good - Jones has largely been consistent in selection, only making voluntary changes at loose-head prop and scrum-half. He has stuck with George Ford at outside-half despite the player going into the tournament short on form and the head coach’s attention to detail has made a difference with the heavy artillery of Ireland, Wales and France all disarmed.
England were by some way the most dangerous team with the ball in hand and their set-pieces, which let them down in the World Cup, were largely dominant. Another area of previous weakness, the breakdown, became a strength (England won 10 turnovers in Paris) and while the finishing was not clinical overall, they created opportunities in every match.
They hit the ground running and the order now will be to speed up.