The second round of the Guinness Six Nations brought with it a wide range of score lines that don’t tell the complete story. Perhaps the most misleading was England’s 33-0 victory over the Italians, which conceals a lack of improvement and stagnant attacking threat. With a two-week break, a lot needs to be done to avoid humiliation, and even more to strip France of their Grand Slam ambitions.
It might sound harsh to describe a clean sheet and five-try victory away from home as underwhelming, but there was little to get excited about at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday afternoon. Marcus Smith created a couple of magic moments, going over in the 10th minute and setting up another, while there were line breaks throughout by the likes of Malins and Dombrandt. But that is to be expected against a sub-par Italian side. In reality, the lack of go-forward ball and precision that marred England’s defeat to Scotland wasn’t improved, leaving our talented young side with much to be admired.
Eddie Jones brought Maro Itoje out of the second row to develop his attacking game, but with little to show for his efforts. In truth, Itoje showed why it is Lawes, not he, who pulls on the 6 shirt more frequently, with only one carry of any note. While Dombrandt impressed, the lack of go-forward ball that the rest of the pack supplied seriously limited his role as the roaming nuisance that we know he can be. Consequently, the balance of the pack didn’t seem to work, and its physicality will need reinforcing before rounds 4 and 5, where England could encounter humiliation against the battering rams of the French and Irish forwards. With Lawes due to return from concussion, and Sinckler returning from the bench where he was presumably rested, there is room for improvement. But that is an apt description of England’s standing at the moment – incredible potential, but stuttering progress.
This wasn’t helped, however, by Jack Nowell bidding farewell in the 20th minute after a head injury, leaving the backline without a gain line threat. Eddie Jones spoke out during the week, saying the missing Tuilagi was the only out and out go-forward threat in the English backline. Yet Nowell made his mark in his short performance, switching wings and making line breaks in the build-up to England’s first try. In his absence, though, England lacked the pace to seriously threaten in the backline, attested to by England’s breakdown woes caused by the often-stagnant nature of England’s attack. Individually, I’m a big fan of Malins, Steward, Marchant, and Daly. But put together, England’s outside backs lacked the pace or footwork to split defences, relying on set pieces or Smith’s flare to create opportunities.
Nor has Slade proved himself as a natural inside centre, providing weight to Jones’ comment that Owen Farrell’s best days in an England shirt are still ahead of him. In the Autumn, Smith and Farrell combined beautifully, with the 10-12 playmaker partnership shifting the point of attack and troubling even South Africa’s defences. Yet with little to threat outside him, and without Tuilagi’s guaranteed momentum, one can’t be overly critical of the Exeter centre. What certainly did work, however, was Harry Randall’s connection with Marcus Smith at 10. As Ben Youngs came off the bench to match Jason Leonard’s 114 England caps, you couldn’t help but think he was relieving his long-term replacement, who had impressed with darting runs around the fringes all game long. Overall, whether it be backs or forwards, England’s injuries played their part, and we must hope that the return of Lawes and Tuilagi bring the edge that has been lacking thus far.
If not, even Wales at home in round 3 could be problematic. After performing embarrassingly in the first round, Wales deployed all the passion and grit we associate with the Principality Stadium and shocked the Scottish side that defeated England just last weekend. In the second half, Wales sucked Scotland into a kicking battle in which the Scots came off second best. Reinforced by physicality upfront, the boot of Dan Biggar strangled the life from Scotland’s game plan, as even Finn Russell couldn’t match his tactical nous. In Smith’s first six nations game at Twickenham, his ability to implement England’s game plan against all the Test match experience of Dan Biggar will be a real test of character, and one in which I’m sure Farrell would have played a helping hand. It is a must-win for this young English side to avoid the campaign from going bad to worse.
Furthermore, it’s a must-win because it will provide the hope they’ll need going into the two toughest fixtures of the tournament. France vs. Ireland was a proper Test match in which the hosts shot out of the blocks, before being pinned back by Ireland in the second half, only to be undone by ill-discipline and Jaminet’s right foot. The ferocity of the French pack was the deciding factor, and England will have to vastly improve to match either side physically. Without Johnny Sexton, once the initial disappointment had waned, there was much to celebrate for the Irish side, who pushed the best team in the world right to the wire in their fortress, the Stade de France. England will have their sights set on Ireland at Twickenham, but even their greatest admirers can’t see England inflicting defeat in Paris. With a record of 13 from 14 at home, France is the side to beat, but it would be a defining moment for this English side to go there and win, especially with the World Cup over the channel in 17 months’ time.
As it stands, however, England ought to take it a game at a time. Victory in Italy is a formality and shouldn’t distract from the performance at Murrayfield. There is great potential in this young English side, but it is imbalanced, hindered by injuries, and lacking go-forward in attack. It will take a colossal improvement to win this championship, which remains France’s to lose. At the very least we should win our two games at home, in the hope of saving face.