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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Robert Kitson at Twickenham

Defeat by South Africa lays bare the deeper problems facing England

Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith
England’s midfield axis of Owen Farrell (left) and Marcus Smith has yet to provide the spark needed by the rest of the back division. Photograph: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Sometimes the scoreboard reflects only one part of a wider story. Yes, England have underperformed this autumn en route to their worst calendar year since 2008. Yes, South Africa were comfortably better on Saturday in their 27-13 victory. But the truest gauge of English rugby’s current predicament was ultimately to be found elsewhere: the boos at the final whistle, the number of spectators leaving early and the savage home truths on social media.

England’s biggest problem is not that they have lost a high-profile rugby match or two. It is the fact that they are rapidly losing their nation’s faith. Anyone with a pair of eyes, whether sitting inside Twickenham or at home on the sofa, can see the sweet chariot has stalled with next year’s World Cup now only five competitive games away. Simply to blame Eddie Jones in isolation is to underplay the rising tide of problems now lapping at the Rugby Football Union’s door.

Only some of them are on the field. A domestic game in financial meltdown, a steep decline in adult male participation, concussion concerns, a sluggish stop-start spectacle, a new head coach: the in-tray of the RFU’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, was stacked high even before these last few chastening days. Worst of all, though, the world’s biggest union is at risk of jeopardising its holy grail: the umbilical link between the grassroots and the game’s top end and, specifically, the ability of England sides to inspire and excite young and old even when victory proves elusive.

No wonder a terse Sunday lunchtime statement from Sweeney – “Results are not where we expect them to be” – implied a sterner-than-usual post-tournament review. Take away the last nine minutes against New Zealand and a flurry of points against a flat Japan and England have resembled frowning final-year students wrestling with the first paragraph of a complex dissertation. As Jones correctly observed, no team looks great when their set piece is being smashed. Even so, the gap between England’s joyless rugby and the depth of playing resources at their disposal is steadily widening.

If the right players are being selected they are certainly not displaying the best of themselves. A cursory skim back over the past year’s results would also suggest any progress since 2019 has been mostly cosmetic. Remember the ill discipline during the Scotland defeat at Murrayfield back in February? The four-try home drubbing by Ireland (admittedly with 14 men for much of it) and France’s 25-13 stroll in Paris? Against the Irish, French and Springboks, perhaps the three best scrummaging packs in the world, England have managed two tries in 240 minutes, scored when they were trailing 18-6 and 27-6 respectively.

England’s Manu Tuilagi in action against South Africa
Manu Tuilagi’s threat was contained by South Africa as England failed to provide a consistent threat to the visiting side’s tryline. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

So, when Jones called Saturday’s defeat a “watershed game for us”, he was correct on many fronts. The summer series victory in Australia always seemed as if it might have papered over a few cracks and they have duly reappeared. England’s game is predicated on a dominant front five and a strong aerial game; on Saturday they possessed neither. If Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi remain irresistible forces of nature, they are keeping it well hidden while the most dynamic English-qualified No 8, Zach Mercer, is in France and will not be available for the Six Nations.

Anything else? Both wings look short of their best form and the Marcus Smith/Owen Farrell axis remains an uneasy marriage. Unless there is a Georgian prop with an English grandparent lurking out there, there are no ready-made tight-head saviours in waiting while the defence coach, Anthony Seibold, is off home to Australia. The summer tour captain, Courtney Lawes, has been much missed but he turns 34 in February and cannot soldier on indefinitely.

Which is why the Twickenham alarm bells are belatedly clanging. What price Jones’s mission statement in January 2020 – “We want to be the greatest rugby team the world has ever seen” – off the back of six defeats and a draw in their 12 Tests in 2022? England are considering a potential World Cup quarter-final against Australia, Wales or Fiji but first they need to escape their pool.

Before that comes a Six Nations opener against Scotland, whom England have beaten once in their past five meetings. Even a revitalised Italy may cause a few problems, let alone France and Ireland. The hooker Jamie George freely concedes a slow start to the Six Nations is unthinkable if England really have serious World Cup ambitions.

“This Six Nations is important,” he said. “We need to go in there and start putting into place exactly the sort of team we want to be and the identity we want to have, because time is running out in that respect.”

It needs emphasising, of course, that South Africa are a good side destined to become even stronger when Lukhanyo Am, Duane Vermeulen, Cheslin Kolbe and others are back and available. But when knowledgeable former players such as Jeremy Guscott openly tweet their despair – ‘Can’t remember the last time I felt so frustrated after watching an Eng rugby team play. Serious reboot of some kind needs to happen for the players to rediscover their brilliance” – it is no longer possible to brush this autumn’s failings under the Twickenham shag-pile.

Anyone with a working knowledge of RFU politics will be staggered if the head coach is jettisoned now, not least because executive resignations would immediately have to follow. Once the English rugby public loses faith, though, things rarely end well.

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