Jones needs to build England’s strength in depth
With one eye on the World Cup, England need to start planning for the inevitable ‘what ifs’
What if Owen Farrell suffers a concussion and Billy Vunipola breaks an arm?
In the run-up to the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks held a series of “What if?” meetings. “We talked about worst-case scenarios,” Jerome Kaino remembered, “and Kieran Read said: ‘The worst would be if Dan Carter and Richie McCaw get injured.’” The head coach, Graham Henry, didn’t really think that would happen - “surely not possible” he told himself - but he wanted to plan for it anyway.
After New Zealand were knocked out by France in 2007, Henry had spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong. He decided his team had been caught short when everything took a turn for the worse. So he became a doomsday prepper.
In their 2007 quarter-final in Cardiff, the All Blacks were thrown by the referee, yes, who hardly gave a decision their way, but by some critical injuries, too. Carter went off after 56 minutes, his replacement, Nick Evans, after 71. Henry felt that, without either of their two first-choice outhalves, his team had become like “a possum in the headlights”.
So for 2011, Henry’s philosophy was to expect the unexpected. He wanted his coaches and players to feel ready for anything. “Say McCaw breaks his leg in the first minute of the final, what happens then?” Henry said. “How do you handle that?”
In the end, McCaw didn’t break his leg but his foot, and he played on anyway. Carter, who tore a tendon in his thigh while he was practising his kicking, wasn’t so lucky. When he dropped out of the tournament, Henry moved Carter’s understudy Colin Slade into the first team and brought his first reserve Aaron Cruden into the squad.
Then, when Slade tore a muscle in his groin playing against Argentina, Henry promoted Cruden into the first team and called up Stephen Donald. And when Cruden twisted his knee half an hour into the final, Donald came on and eventually won the game, 8-7 against France.
Henry doesn’t claim he had all this exactly mapped out but all that contingency planning meant they were in the best position to cope with this Job’s lot of bad luck. Henry was criticised for the way he had rotated his squad in 2009 and 2010 but the policy meant that by the end of 2011 he had four outhalves who all had experience playing Test rugby. Donald already had 23 caps. “If he hadn’t had that All Black experience, he wouldn’t have been able to do what he did,” Henry said later. “It didn’t make it easy but thank God we had a strategy for it.”
Seven months out from the World Cup, it feels as if Eddie Jones is still so busy working out through the best-case scenario that he hasn’t had time to worry about the worst yet. Jones has built an England squad who are capable of beating anyone, so long as they have their key players fit, as they did against Ireland in Dublin at the beginning of the month.
But then you get to those “What ifs?”. It’s pretty easy to work out what the worst of these are. What if Owen Farrell suffers a concussion and Billy Vunipola breaks an arm? What if Mako Vunipola twists an ankle and Kyle Sinckler gets sent off?
What is hard is figuring exactly what England will do if either, some, or all these things come true, which they likely will, given the casualty rate of your average World Cup campaign is something like that of a small Victorian war, and the fact England are now playing a style of rugby that requires a lunatic commitment to imposing themselves physically on the opposition. Because the gulf between England with and England without that band of their players is beginning to look like the difference between their winning the World Cup and being knocked out in the semi-finals.
They were without two of them, Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje, when they lost to Wales on Saturday. Who knows what difference Vunipola’s Stakhanovite tackle count and Itoje’s we-go-again leadership would have made to a game that was balanced on a razor’s edge for 78 minutes? The odd part was that Jones was so reluctant to use some of the other players he did have available, such as George Ford and Dan Robson, who were left on the bench.
It was as if, already without one Vunipola and Itoje, Jones was determined he had to keep Farrell and Ben Youngs on the pitch just so England had a critical mass of those key players.
Of course all teams are hostage to these twists of fate and fortune. But England, perhaps because they’re only recently out of the slump they suffered last year, seem especially dependent on a small group of favoured players. Compare Jones’s approach with, say, the way Ireland’s Joe Schmidt has brought through Joey Carbery and Kieron Marmion as cover for his two key players, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, or how Warren Gatland has balanced his Wales selection so he has a choice of Gareth Anscombe and Dan Biggar at outhalf, or Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty at number 8.
Jones surely knows all this. Like every international coach, he will have his depth chart, marking the pecking order of players in each position. But take the list at outhalf. There’s Farrell, and then Ford, who seems to be lucky to get off the bench, and beyond him, perhaps, Danny Cipriani, who has been frozen out since last summer. Or at scrumhalf, where, after Youngs, Danny Care has been dropped from the squad and Robson can’t seem to get a game.
Few would deny that Jones has a first XV who are strong enough to win the World Cup in Japan. But unless they get very lucky, they will have to prove they can do it without them, too.