There are plenty of ways to describe England’s performance against France but the one word I would use is confused. Eddie Jones tried to give them clarity in the buildup but all he managed to do was write France’s teamtalk for them. I do wonder whether Jones purposely sought to put his side under pressure to get a true sense of where his players are at the moment but, either way, his comments backfired.
The confusion is entirely understandable, however, and should not lead to any panic or rash decisions.
It was evident, particularly in attack, and it felt as though a large part of that is the unfamiliarity with Simon Amor’s methods. As England’s new attack coach he had little more than a week to work with the players before Sunday’s match. At Harlequins I always think it takes players five or six weeks to “unlearn” something and the same to learn something new. Changing behaviours takes time and it looked as if England were caught in the crossover between their World Cup systems and what Simon and Eddie are trying to implement.
To illustrate, there were a number of occasions when Kyle Sinckler or Courtney Lawes was taking the ball flat rather than in motion so they were not sitting defenders down. That makes it very hard to play out from the back as they did so beautifully against the All Blacks in the World Cup. That was not quite happening and it meant the backs were not sure if the forwards were getting momentum or not. I actually thought George Ford did pretty well, marshalling the team around the field, but Owen Farrell struggled. I’ve never seen him drop two stone-cold balls like that before.
As an attack coach I can say everyone has an opinion on how to attack. Players and coaches will want to adopt strategies that have worked before. Some want to throw it out the back the whole time, some want to give to the second receiver, play off nine, play off 10 – there are a million ways to attack and it can take time to align. But in international rugby, simplicity is key. The temptation must be that because there are players of the highest quality in an international squad, you can overload them with information because they are good at being receptive. But it’s important to keep the playbook streamlined.
Simon will no doubt be keeping things simple at the moment, trying to use the set piece to squeeze and strangle and allow the decision-makers at 10 and 12 to do their thing. In patches I could see what they were trying to do but losing Manu Tuilagi when they were already without Mako and Billy Vunipola was such a killer blow.
England came under considerable pressure in the first half and in that situation they revert to type. They were trying to use the power game to punch holes but they did not have the personnel and that was all too evident on those occasions when they were five or 10 metres out and were unable to get to the line.
They had four v twos left, four v ones right, there was space out wide but there was unwillingness to pull the trigger out back, which we would have seen before. We would have seen a big carry from Mako, Billy or Manu and then it would have gone wide but they were simply not seeing those pictures. They kept battering away and they came up against a resolute French defence.
The French of old would probably have capitulated but this is a different team with a different mentality with Shaun Edwards’s input. England did not have the answers and they were not able to react quickly enough to move the point of attack and get the ball a little bit wider.
It will be tough to turn it around before going to Scotland on Saturday but the important thing for Eddie and Simon is to stick to what they are doing. They have to give it time for it to work. The easy thing to do now would be to change everything and decide that it hasn’t worked in their first match, so it never will. The better approach is to stick to what you want to do but refine it. It might be as simple as body height at the ruck needing a tweak.
Quick ball is everything and, if you can win the contact, ruck efficiently and accurately and create quick ball, then you get the attack on the front foot, time and space becomes bigger and everything becomes easier. I think they will keep belief in what they have been trying to do but home in on one or two specifics that need tweaking. You need time for new combinations and new understandings to embed. With another week there will be a little bit more understanding and while I am sure they will change a little bit, structurally, in terms of how they actually want to do things, they will stick to their guns.
The position changes will not have helped either. It will take time for Tom Curry to adapt to playing at No 8 but I do expect improvements against Scotland, who impressed me against Ireland but have areas where England can cause them problems. Ireland were not at their best but they were able to get ascendancy in the middle third of the field and traditionally that is something England have been very good at. If they can do that, then I expect them to get back to winning ways.