With the Northern Hemisphere season now done and dusted till September, we hand out our verdict on the Six Nations Competitors and what we feel they got out of their year on a score out of ten.
We’ll be the first to admit it’s completely subjective based on what we saw and where in our humble opinions it leaves the teams heading into the 2018/2019 season, with the added twist of the World Cup being only a year away once England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales get back to business in September. We highlight the match we most enjoyed from each of the teams and we try to pick the player who made the greatest contribution to their national cause over the past season as well as the player that we feel is most likely to catch the eye in the next. So take from it what you will but without any further ado let’s get into it in Part 4 where we take a look at how England fared.
England – 6/10
There’s no getting away from it, it’s been a difficult year for England and how far the chariot has fallen since England were number 2 in the world less than a year ago. They now find themselves in fourth on the rankings table, which in itself would not be so bad were it not for the fact that two of their other Six Nations rivals Wales and Ireland are ahead of them, with the Irish being comfortably so. England’s form since the Six Nations has left many wondering if a further slide down the table is not imminent, especially as of 11 matches played this past season (we are not including the Barbarians match), England lost five in a row.
While it is clear that all is not well with the structure underpinning the Men in White, we feel it needs a sense of perspective. Yes, by England’s lofty standards it has been an exceptionally disappointing season after the highs of 2016 and 2017. However, take a closer look at the results, despite the losses, they were never really taken to the cleaners in a manner akin to the Springboks 57-0 drubbing by the All Blacks last year. They had a number of solid wins, and their biggest losing margin was the 25-13 loss to Scotland in this year’s Six Nations. They have been competitive make no mistake, what they have lacked is the finishing necessary in big matches and a real lack of direction in selection policy. Furthermore, Coach Eddie Jones has been guilty of sticking with combinations that either don’t work or are in desperate need of some fresh blood. Does he have enough time to develop the depth and resources of new talent he needs before England take a shot at the World Cup next September?
England got their season off to a shaky start in the November Internationals against Argentina. After the shock of losing to Ireland in their final match of the Six Nations in 2017 and the end of their longest ever winning streak, England really needed to make a statement in their November Internationals opener. Unfortunately no such statement was made. England got the win but that was about all that could be said about it. It was a poor performance from both sides, but given England’s calibre they should have won the game by a far greater margin than 13 points. Had Argentina managed some decent goalkicking the scores would have been much closer. England then redeemed themselves against Australia in a performance that reflected the standard we had come to expect from them. Nevertheless, in the first half they struggled to capitalise on numerous chances and as a result the score was only 6-0 in favor of the Men in White. Nevertheless, defensively they looked rock solid, especially given the multiple strike threats that Australia possessed. England’s defence withheld enormous pressure from some spectacular and relentless Australian attacking play, while at the same time England’s bench really came to the party in the final quarter. Ultimately England would score three tries and emerge the winners by 30-6. They ended their November Test window with a comprehensive thrashing of Samoa, and looked well set to be the number one contenders for Six Nations glory.
To that effect they got their Six Nations campaign off to a robust start in Rome against Italy, running in seven tries and comfortably putting themselves at the top of the table after the first round. From there however, dramatic cracks started to appear as they took on Wales at Twickenham. It was a messy game from both sides, but once more England looked far from convincing and the scoreline was a bit too close for comfort. England then made the journey to Murrayfield to take on a Scottish side brimming with confidence after dispatching France. Much like in Dublin almost a year ago, the wheels fell off the England bus in a rather dramatic fashion. Scotland threw the kitchen sink at them and looked the more polished and committed side for the full eighty minutes. Scotland matched everything England brought to the encounter, especially in the forward battles and were clearly the better side. England were completely outplayed especially up front and the English back row was proving to be dysfunctional, despite some impressive individual performances, while the half back pairing of George Ford and Danny Care was misfiring badly.
Things then went from bad to worse as England travelled to Paris and another dismal error strewn performance plagued by ill discipline followed. England simply failed to show up, and France who had problems of their own, especially in terms of discipline, still managed to be more effective when it mattered most. England experienced their second consecutive loss, and the wind had clearly gone out of a side that had, along with New Zealand, dominated the International Rugby headlines in the first two years following the 2015 World Cup. In their final Six Nations match England needed to redeem themselves at Fortress Twickenham, and attempt to rob Ireland of a Grand Slam, just as Ireland did to them the previous year. It wasn’t to be as once more the English forward pack were bossed off the field by Ireland, and the Irish defence snuffed out any opportunities the English tried to create. Even the traditionally reliable Owen Farrell playing at fly half couldn’t seem to find the answers needed to unpick Ireland’s game plan. England would score three impressive tries, but an inability to convert any of them would ensure that Ireland would end up winning comfortably. England as they have for much of the year seemed to struggle with pressure and, in such a big match as this, even at home it was clear that they singularly failed to cope with it and rise to the occasion – something their visitors from across the Irish Sea seemed much more comfortable with.
England would wrap up their season with a daunting three Test series in South Africa. After their disappointing Six Nations adventures which saw them finish fifth, just above wooden spoon holders Italy, Coach Eddie Jones and his men looked ill placed to take on a Springbok outfit under new management and looking to make amends for two dreadful years following the last World Cup. The decision to train at sea level, when the first two Tests were to be played with the infamous altitude of the High Veld as a factor, left everyone including ourselves utterly bewildered. England came storming out of the blocks in the first quarter, but then proceeded to essentially run out of gas while South Africa steadily built momentum. To be fair, despite the players often looking dead on their feet they scrapped to the end, and it is to England’s credit that although they lost, it was only by three points. It was close, and a Test match for the ages but England will only have themselves to blame for blowing an early 21 point lead. In the second Test also at altitude, England once again ran out of puff after a bright start and the Springboks ground out a gritty but convincing win, in which England’s forwards and half backs once again struggled to assert any kind of control over proceedings. It was ultimately a poor performance from England, and with it went the series as South Africa made it 2-0.
In appalling weather, England pulled their socks up in Cape Town for the third and final Test and to their credit gave their best performance of the season. It was a fitting end to an otherwise forgettable year, as England demonstrated that this team can triumph in adversity, and furthermore is blessed with some remarkable talent, perhaps most fittingly epitomised in winger Jonny May. England ran out worthy winners and salvaged some pride from a tour that had clearly given them more to think about than perhaps they had hoped.
In short, while it may have been England’s annus horribilis, provided they can learn from the mistakes made in sufficient time, it could end up being the best possible preparation for next year’s World Cup. The complacency that often comes with a long winning streak, if it ever was there, has surely been tossed out the window from a dizzying height in the case of England. As mentioned above, it would be ludicrous to write them off as anything other than serious contenders for the World Cup. In a country with the depth of talent and resources that England has, they simply won’t be down and out for long. While many feel, and we tend to agree, that Coach Eddie Jones was not the saviour of English rugby that he was made out to be, and perhaps not the ideal long-term solution for the problems England found itself with after the last World Cup, he will hopefully address with vigor the weaknesses that this season has exposed. He has the talent at his disposal, so surely it is only a matter of time before England are once again reasserting themselves as a dominant force in International Rugby. Whether or not he himself has the skill set and willingness to affect the changes needing to be made remains to be seen. As a conclusion, England may be down but they are definitely not out and as we saw in the rain and mud of Newlands at the end of June, there is still plenty of fire in the belly of the English Rose.
Match of the year – South Africa vs England – Cape Town – June 23rd – South Africa 10/England 25
Some of you may be surprised to see us pick this as England’s best this past season. However, for us it showed the grit and character of this English team with their backs against the wall in tough conditions and a long way from home. They may have lost the Series but what a courageous last stand to set the tone for next season. They were the better side on the day, when everyone had written them off. South Africa although having won the Series would not have taken their foot off the gas, as the prospect of a Series whitewash would have been too tempting. However, England proved the better side at mastering the conditions and staying the course, and ultimately salvaged some much-needed pride and inspiration from what had otherwise been a year to forget.
Player of the year – Jonny May
With 20 tries to his name this season, he was the one player who consistently turned up for England all year. With his defensive abilities vastly improved, it was his ability to make England devastating out wide in every match they played that makes us hand him the accolade of England’s most accomplished and reliable player of 2018. England will be looking to him for more of the same this year.
Player to watch in 2019 – Tom Curry
England’s back row problems of the last year have been exhaustively documented by us and others. For us Curry is the breath of fresh air that England so desperately needs in this part of the park. The twenty year old openside flanker has a huge future ahead of him, and in a tour that needed inspiration, Curry provided it by the bucket load. If Eddie Jones is serious about addressing England’s problems then giving Curry as much game time as possible between now and Japan will be one his first steps in the right direction.
We’ll end this report card with some highlights of England’s best match of the year in our opinion. The final Test against South Africa that took place at the end of June, had all those gritty qualities and never say die attitudes that you associate with the English jersey. It was pride restored with a long to do list between now and the World Cup next year, but showed us that to write England off would perhaps be foolhardy to the extreme. England will be back and may just end up peaking at exactly the right time in 2019!
To be continued – up next Wales!