Gordon D’Arcy: Is the English rose about to wilt?
England may be closing in on record but they look a shadow of team that dominated 2016
Eddie Jones’ England look like a team feeling the pressure as the weight of creating history bears down on them. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Professional rugby players are treated like children for about 90 per cent of their working week. I know, I have two at home (kids not rugby players).
All outside distractions are handled to enable peak performance. Your rehab is as close to perfection as is scientifically possible. The colour of your pristine training kit is emailed the night before.
Facilities are like a space-ship from a sci-fi movie. Food is arranged by dietitian who knows individual player’s specific requirements. Each and every guy’s specific duties are ingrained into his brain. Afternoon naps are encouraged. A masseuse is on hand at almost any hour. There are specific times to relax with entertainment, in the form of famous artists and legendary figures from other sports, coming to the team room in your hotel.
Whatever it takes so, come kick-off, you are expected to perform; to be manlier than the average man. To play through enormous pain. To push your body beyond belief. For the jersey. For your country. Because you are special. You are an elite athlete.
I used to love it and hate it in equal measure. The joy of sitting in a winning changing room. The nothingness after defeat
The best coaches control as much as is humanly possible to ensure players are conditioned to make the right decisions on the field. They shield you from almost everything else.
All of life’s normal constraints are paused in order to thrive when the most enormous pressure imaginable is heaped upon your shoulders. The message is clear: go forth and conquer. I used to love it and hate it in equal measure. The joy of sitting in a winning changing room. The nothingness after defeat.
Now, do that 18 times in a row. Or, even, 19. That’s the precipice at which England currently finds themselves. The same English players, more than less, who failed to perform under pressure at the 2015 World Cup.
Initially Stuart Lancaster was to blame. Easy solution – behead the problem – as to why the team facing Scotland in Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match couldn’t springboard from their Twickenham home into the quarter-finals.
The same men who lost to Wales, then the Wallabies, have recovered to beat these nations on six occasions since the World Cup.
The players were not to blame, no. Certainly not the players Eddie Jones guided to a Grand Slam, a 3-0 series win in Australia and are now only one game shy of the All Blacks winning record.
But see Leinster in recent months and see the type of coach Lancaster truly is. Listen to what academy graduates up to senior internationals say about him. They all believe they are becoming better players under his tutelage.
So the Lancaster theory – the first edition of that historical review – might need to be rewritten. Lancaster understands rugby, understands how to beat teams.
Switching the blame to Andy Farrell or Mike Catt would be to question whether Joe Schmidt or Conor O’Shea know their business, after Lancaster’s assistants were quickly snapped up for further exposure to the international arena.
That leaves the players. The very players who recovered to win a Grand Slam. The same men Jones takes so much pressure off with his ‘all eyes on me’ media dealings. The players he is now trying to draw out performances similar to what got them to this juncture in the first place.
So far in the Six Nations that has not happened. England look a team under ever increasing strain. That’s pressure. Merely coping with it is can weigh you down.
This is a very competent English squad with an enormously powerful and efficient tight five. But all players are susceptible to new forms of pressure. The looming record brings this great unknown.
Watch England’s try scoring highlight reel from 2017; Ben Te’o against France, Elliot Daly’s finish in Cardiff or three tries in the last 10 minutes against Italy, and you see a serious side in full flow.
But sit down to watch all three games in their entirety and they look a shadow of the team that dominated 2016. For this England team, or any English rugby player, this is unfamiliar ground.
So Eddie Jones walks into press conferences after every game to paper over the cracks with a cloak of Aussie sarcasm, coupled with the affirmation gained by victory. We beat France playing poorly, because we are a good side. Post Wales, our players don’t know how to lose any more, mate. We will take Italy to the cleaners. After struggling for 60 minutes: Italy didn’t play within the spirit of rugby.
Jones, while highly entertaining in front of microphones, appears to be unfurling a calculated ploy that’s also evident on a weekly basis in the jaw dropping soap opera of American politics; take the focus off glaringly problematic flaws by dreaming up a scandal elsewhere.
When they fall off a bit it’s inevitable that doubt starts to creep in. England are still winning but is there some doubt?
The Italian coaches produced a game plan that brought into question England’s on-field leaders ability to react in real time. Just listen to Dylan Hartley and James Haskell interacting with Romain Poite – “I’m the referee. I am not a coach” – when it came to how a ruck can be formed. That was 35 minutes into a match with England 5-3 in front when the bookmakers had given them a 41 point handicap. It wasn’t just about Italy finding a chink in the rule book. They played well while England were poor.
Jones has also linked himself, perhaps inextricably, to Hartley’s captaincy despite the latest suspension and subsequent dip in form that has required the introduction of Jamie George before the hour mark in every match this year.
Jones, who has seen and done it all as a coach, sees an easy solution to every problem. Last season he wondered aloud about what Johnny Sexton’s parents think about his injuries only to back track, deep in the post-season, by saying he would like to apologise to Johnny. But in the week that mattered most, nobody paid any heed to George Ford.
It’s all gamesmanship. He’s a clever manipulator of media messages. He deflects from potential England negatives by exacerbating opposition issues.
It’s PR management 101.
I presume in the team environment Eddie, not unlike Joe, works on ensuring each player knows his specific role. When everything goes well, confidence is sky high in the coach and each other. But when they fall off a bit it’s inevitable that doubt starts to creep in. England are still winning but is there some doubt?
Last year England were winning in a way more convincing fashion. They have the same dual playmakers – George Ford and Owen Farrell (who struggled with his kicking against Italy) – but this season Nathan Hughes has struggled to make the same yardage from number eight as Billy Vunipola (whose timely return could prove seismic).
Of course the All Blacks will not feature on England’s world record list should they handle the strain long enough to beat Scotland on Saturday and Ireland in Dublin.
So would the record then be sullied? Not at all. Win 19 Test matches and the record deservedly belongs to England.
But compare the teams and New Zealand had a tougher run, unquestionably, with 10 wins abroad (to England’s seven). They scored more tries (104 to England’s current return of 65). They conceded fewer (18 to 28).
What interested me was how well the All Blacks played once in sight of the record. They embraced it. Their performances soared.
Every game on a winning streak gets a team closer to a loss because the pressure increases. England must now be desperate to go 19 wins in a row because it makes them historically invincible, not to mention back-to-back Grand Slammers. That would make any player think about what they are doing when normal actions would otherwise be automatic.
Instead of going out the back, offloading with almost abandon, they carry into the safety of the turf. They are playing conservative rugby, perhaps without realising it. Pressure can do that because you don’t want to be the guy to let the team down.
Ireland are in a different head space. It is all about the process because they know it supersedes the individual, as it has delivered Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015. England are in more embryonic stages of their development under Jones. That’s what makes this run so impressive.
But these English players must still carry baggage from 2015. This has barely been mentioned. Because they are winning. But it’s largely the same squad who underperformed at the World Cup. Only for Elliot Daly’s try, I think Wales would have won.
Wales have been a very well drilled side this past 10 years. To my mind that relieving kick by Jonathan Davies wasn’t meant for Row Z. I think he missed touch by a clear 10 metres on purpose, in order to invite England back at them and go to that dark place of defending a 16-14 lead for five minutes (as they did against us two years ago in Cardiff).
The kick chase let them down.
The plan was to force England into error. Instead, Alex Cuthbert came up at least a metre too narrow to have any chance of catching Daly on the outside. Two well executed passes by Ford and Farrell brilliantly exposed this poor defensive alignment.
Cuthbert’s eyes are clearly trained on Farrell. Even his head is tilted away from the man he should be tracking. The body position is all wrong too, while Daly is almost at full speed so, really, it’s a try before he receives the ball. That would have hurt Shaun Edwards because I think Wales had prepared to defend that attack.
Go back to the French performance in Twickenham. In both games, and even Italy trailing 17-15 on the hour mark, I can’t help wondering how the All Blacks would have reacted in the same situations. That’s why they are not comparable.
Granted, New Zealand couldn’t win game 19 but that wasn’t down to losing their locking pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock or a centre and winger during the game. Ireland were also without a few players yet we put five tries on them. The All Blacks were beaten off the pitch in Chicago.
Scotland do have the ability to create doubt in this England team but I can’t see them winning a rare Triple Crown in Twickenham simply because of the power reserves Jones will introduce in the final 30 minutes.
Jones is probably one of the few coaches in the history of the game that could keep England undefeated for 17 matches.
England were knocked out in the pool stages of a World Cup on home soil, so they hired the best available coach in the game before marching to a Grand Slam. It was impressive but 14 or 15 games into that winning streak there are signs that they are stuttering.
As a collective the last time they were in this situation, under this amount of pressure – including a very quiet media contingent – the result was less than desirable.
That weighs on anyone, on any team. Especially a group that has a recent history of buckling in the white heat of Test match rugby
Jones, like Michael Cheika, brings immediate improvement wherever he goes. But there’s a shelf life to this, which he knows well, having never remained in a job for longer than four seasons (Australia). Japan was only three years before he initially took up the Super Rugby head coaching job in Cape Town.
Considering how England hit the ground running, this might prove his finest moment as a coach. I’m not completely convinced. There has yet to be a slip up that led to defeat so they must deal with the pressure of being unbeaten.
That weighs on anyone, on any team. Especially a group that has a recent history of buckling in the white heat of Test match rugby.
England, unlike the All Blacks run, appear to be trailing off, their performances dipping as they inch closer to the record. That’s heavy pressure.
Also, they are only 18 months into a four-year plan and are yet to lose. They seem to be thinking about that. Who could blame them? They are in murky, uncharted waters.