Eddie Jones does not have the players to simply blast through Scotland, so guile and speed will have to be to the fore
England arrive at Murrayfield a wounded animal. There will be some bruised bodies from last weekend and no doubt some emotional scars having failed to do what they set out to do in their previous two matches. Add in the number of changes made by Eddie Jones, plus the six-day turnaround, and England’s challenge becomes all the more difficult.
We have plenty of soundbites about the passion and the mutual hatred with these sides. We have heard how Eddie wants to unleash his very own “Bomb Squad” on Scotland and take them on up front but I desperately hope the devil has been in the detail for England this week.
Eddie does not normally make so many changes – by his standards this is fairly radical – and he has picked six forwards on the bench, which is to some extent a statement of intent, but he could have named eight and he would still not have the power and the gainline threat posed when he has both Vunipolas, Manu Tuilagi and Ben Te’o at his disposal. Mako is back but Jones still does not have the players to blast through Scotland and he has picked what must be the most lightweight backline of his tenure. That means it is time to get creative again.
For all the possession England had in Paris, I’m not sure they created any genuine try-scoring opportunities other than two moments of brilliance from Jonny May. I’m hoping that’s an anomaly because England are normally so deadly in the 22 but they weren’t able to convert that possession and territory into points. Losing Manu causes an obvious problem but I also see it as an opportunity.
Manu is an obvious handful and his sheer size and presence can create quick ball but there are plenty of other ways to do that. Whether that’s running at shoulders, varying options at the line, slickness of handling, the pace at which you run at the line – it’s a fallacy to say that you have to be a certain weight or size to get over the gain line. The weather is forecast to be dreadful but that doesn’t mean you cannot be creative.
I look at England’s midfield of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Jonathan Joseph. They need to be at their slickest and the blueprint for that is against Scotland at Twickenham in 2017. Their detail off first phase was excellent in that 61-21 win and I really hope they have spent all week honing that kind of detail. Joseph scored a hat-trick that day and two of his tries were very similar. England got into a great attacking shape, presented different options, picked the right ones, ran the right lines and at such speed. It was among the most exhilarating performances I’ve seen from this England attack.
It is understandable but England have gone away from that in the last couple of years. When Eddie has had so many power athletes at his disposal it has come to dominate the gameplan. It is no wonder when you see how effective it has been against New Zealand at the World Cup or against Ireland in Dublin, but sometimes you can forget the other skillsets you have when you can rely on big ball carriers beating defenders around the corner and getting over the gainline. It can be devastating but England do not have that in their armoury at the moment.
So they need to show a bit more guile and bring tempo to everything they do. In Dublin last year in that 32-20 victory they had the power athletes but look at how they began that match. The lineout over the top to Manu in the first minute or two … they did not give Ireland a chance to catch their breath. The stats back up the need for England to start fast because in their last 20 fixtures England have been the team to score first on 15 occasions. Of those matches, they have gone on to win 13, drawing once, against Scotland last year, and losing only once, by a point to New Zealand. In the five matches in which they have gone behind they have gone on to lose three times.
The focus needs to be on creativity, speed of ball and line speed. Of course England need front-foot ball to do that and that probably explains why Lewis Ludlam comes in to the side to add another breakdown threat. By the same token, it’s a shame Luke Cowan-Dickie has been ruled out, because he is incredible over the ball.
It has come about through injury rather than design, but it is also worth noting Joseph’s ability in defence. I believe he is the best defensive outside-centre England have and if Scotland are going to look to go coast-to-coast all the time, he’s the best option Eddie has to shut that down. I’d expect England to get off the line with far greater desire and urgency than last week and Joseph is wonderful at that umbrella defence, shutting down those wider channels, getting into the eyeline of Adam Hastings and making him hesitate. It’s all the more important against a team who don’t kick a lot – Scotland only kicked 10 times from open play in Dublin last Saturday.
Finally, what happens if and when the tide does turn against England? When Scotland get on a roll? Whenever you feel like you are under the pump, whether it’s a few mistakes or negative actions in a row, conceding a try or a couple of penalties in a row, you have to manufacture moments of calm and quiet on the pitch. After 10 minutes you must create a break in play, whether it’s a dodgy contact lens or whatever it is, you go into a huddle, you have your generals discussing what they are seeing on the pitch. Against France it might have been: “We’re getting beaten up at the breakdown and we’ve had X number of penalties against so we have to chuck more space out wide. What’s space looking like out wide? Vakatawa is blitzing up hard from the outside channel so let’s turn them, put pressure on Bouthier.”
I have no doubt that this England team is experienced enough to know that, but can they implement it in the moment? Murrayfield will be bouncing so England must show they can be more streetwise.