What’s changed? England are visibly enjoying their rugby again
England’s power, pace and speed of thought in the first 50 minutes on a different planet
England have beaten Ireland and France in their first two Six Nations matches. Photograph: Getty Images
The first rule of rugby gravity is simple. The best players and coaches are only as good as their next game, not the one just gone.
The ideal time to judge this England team is not this week, with Wales up next in Cardiff, but after they have departed the dragon’s lair. Everything in between is potential motivation to be pinned up in the home dressing-room.
Occasionally, though, a side soars so high so rapidly it becomes impossible for friend and foe not to ponder how far up the rocket might ultimately go. It is more than 15 years since Twickenham shook to the roar of a crowd not merely relishing a successful team but one looking to redefine what Test rugby could and should be. If France’s shortcomings played a big part on Sunday, England’s power, pace and speed of thought in the first 50 minutes were on a different planet.
It was barely 11 months ago that England finished fifth in the Six Nations championship with weighty questions hanging over the management. What has changed? The easy answer would be ‘Everything’ but that would be untrue. Jonny May, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola and Jamie George all started in their side’s 22-16 defeat by France in Paris a year ago, Farrell was captain and Eddie Jones was the man in charge of strategic affairs.
The most obvious difference is in the players’ body language: no longer are England treading through treacle but hurtling around the pitch at a speed many teams simply cannot match.
“It’s a huge advantage, isn’t it?” said their scrumhalf, Ben Youngs, saluting May’s sprinter’s ability to unnerve casual back-field defenders. “When you make a line break and teams are defending with 14 in the line, there is only one guy back. If you beat him it’s just a straight foot race.”
It has also been a decent advert for their fitness and preparation methods; given Ireland also trained in Portugal last month without such eye-catching results, England’s back-room staff deserve some recognition. It helps that some key players are back fit, most notably Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi, but there is one other key fresh ingredient. England are visibly enjoying their rugby again, which was not the case this time last year.
“We highlighted before the game that we really wanted to enjoy the France game,” said Youngs. “We were back at Twickenham, the squad’s feeling good and we wanted to put on a show for a full house. We enjoyed doing that. You can probably see it. From numbers one to 23, guys are thriving and loving being part of the team.”
Crucially, that zest is apparent with and without the ball. Over the ref’s microphone on Sunday the buzzword ‘Smash’ was in constant use whenever France were in possession; line-speed is now an everyday requirement but England, with the tireless Tom Curry and Mark Wilson to the fore, are taking it to another level. Not only can it generate energy and momentum but, also, opportunity. Ireland turned over the ball 14 times against England; France did so 21 times. As a direct result England’s transition game – the art of turning defence into attack – is coming on in leaps and bounds.
John Mitchell and Scott Wisemantel, the two coaches recruited by Jones to re-boot England in this area, are proving valuable additions. Jones is still very much the chief selector but the balance of his team-sheet is now far better. So is the collective mindset. While controlled freedom might sound a tautology, it sums up the squad’s less straitjacketed mood. Central to it all is Farrell, whose shift to No 10 has been another catalyst.
“The bloke’s a genius,” said George, his Saracens teammate. “I never see him have a bad game and that’s why he’s one of the best players in the world, if not the best player in the world.”
The net result is that England are starting to make good teams (in Ireland’s case) look average and poor teams look abysmal. France were not so much beaten on Sunday as routed; Midi Olympique’s blunt headline ‘Waterloo’ said it all. Whatever the generals are telling their troops appears to be going in one ear and out the other.
Then again the rugby world was saying something similar after New Zealand ripped France 62-13 in Cardiff during the 2015 World Cup.
That All Black side had an all-court game of rare slickness and intelligence, allied to forwards who could catch, pass and sprint as surely as their three-quarters. Collectively, they were playing a game beyond the reach of European sides, not simply Les Bleus. Which is why Jones has always wanted to pursue a third way.
Simply battering teams will take a side only so far in the modern game; France had loads of muscle but little in the way of world-class dynamism. England, on the other hand, finally have a number of fit, hardcore ball-carriers, plus oodles of pace out wide and a world-class goalkicker. As Youngs put it: “If you’re 30-8 up against France at half-time you are doing something right.”
It does not guarantee an England win in Cardiff on Saturday week but, suddenly, the 2019 World Cup no longer feels like mission impossible for them.