England fail to sparkle in ‘a grind-athon’
To say the weekend’s other games in Cardiff, Dublin and Paris put England’s -opening autumn effort into sharp perspective is the understatement of the season. When Eddie Jones called it “a grinda-thon” he was being generous and the contest with Australia on Saturday will end unhappily unless his team show more dynamism up front and locate some rhythm behind. The head coach’s blunt second-half outburst – “How effing stupid are we?” – did not bode well, either.
As anyone who stayed awake long enough will testify there was - literally - a yawning gap between England’s pre match rhetoric and what they ultimately delivered at Twickenham. One post-match suggestion was that it was all a devilish Jones masterplan to lull the Wallabies into a sense of false security.
In fairness, England’s defence was largely excellent and Sam Underhill and Nathan Hughes both enhanced their reputations in the backrow. England remain unbeaten at home under Jones and have now won 20 of their 21 internationals since the Australian took over.
Against the Wallabies, even so, England will be under pressure to disprove the niggling theory that their rate of progress is slowing and that they are overly reliant on their three Saracens’ musketeers, Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the injured Billy Vunipola. That was certainly the verdict of the Twickenham jury on Saturday, with the stadium atmosphere about as animated as a fortnightly bridge night in Stow-on-the-Wold.
England’s backs appeared to have been only recently introduced to each other and by far the most dramatic flourish came when Jones was caught on camera slamming down his notebook like a holidaymaker who has reached the check-in desk only to realise his family’s passports are sitting on the kitchen table.
Without the arrival of one or two lively English substitutes, most notably Alex Lozowski whose swift identification of a midfield mismatch established the bridgehead from which Semesa Rokoduguni, still a serving soldier in the British Army, scored his clinching try, it would have been the least memorable of Remembrance weekend games. Even that did not assist Jones much; if Lozowski starts it can only be instead of either Farrell or George Ford while Rokoduguni’s three tries in three Tests have taken three years to amass.
There was, in short, very little of the collective urgency displayed by Ireland against South Africa in Dublin. England, restricted to just 37 per cent possession, may officially be the world’s second highest-ranked team but, rust or no rust, they are not consistently playing like it.
That is probably reason enough to recall Farrell and Itoje to the starting XV to face the Wallabies. Assuming Mike Brown recovers from a nasty early tumble and Jonny May’s hamstring recovers, Jones will then have a key judgment call to make. While Henry Slade did not enjoy his greatest day in a home midfield handicapped by the twin shackles of slow ball and limited game-time together, there remains a good case for starting him at No13 alongside Farrell and retaining Lozowski on the bench for another second-half flourish.
Jamie George, Ellis Genge and Harry Williams, all powerful ball-carriers, must be given at least one starting opportunity this month while the backrow balance remains a conundrum. Underhill and Chris Robshaw do plenty of donkey work but Jones must be increasingly tempted to try Courtney Lawes on the blindside flank.
If Hughes were to go down in the first minute against Australia, it will be a big ask for Exeter’s Sam Simmonds to do the backrow carrying single-handed. On Saturday Hughes carried for 79 metres, more than all the other seven members of the pack and the forward replacements combined.
Hughes’ one-handed catch for his first try when the Pumas were down to 14 men, Lozowski’s sharp break, the spectacular restart work of Argentina’s winger Ramiro Moyano and one lovely flick from the great Juan Martín Hernández on his final Twickenham Test appearance – the afternoon was not entirely bereft of charm.
It is also possible to argue England were fortunate in places, with Joaquín Tuculet unlucky to be sent to the sin-bin for his genuine attempt to compete with Brown in the air, and Slade’s scoring pass to Rokoduguni sparking another tedious physics debate about momentum and stuff being thrown from moving trains. If Australia are to be halted in their tracks this weekend, their hosts will have to improve significantly.
Henry Slade of England tackles Emiliano Boffelli of Argentina during the Test match at Twickenham on Saturday.