By Jack Vavasour
England were favourites going into their match with Wales, having neutralised Ireland away from home and thrashed France at Twickenham. Few teams claim victory on the road, unless you are playing against Italy.
The real problem with England’s defeat was that Wales have been far from impressive in the build-up to this match, despite their winning run. England had a similar patch at the beginning of Eddie Jones’ reign, as they broke record after record and when they played poorly they still claimed a win.
England are a far better side now, despite losing more frequently. It is often stated that you learn more about yourself in defeat than you ever could in a victory. England certainly are learning. After a terrible campaign last year, England have looked like the side to beat this term. They have come on leaps and bounds since this time a year ago and, in reality, one defeat is a shame, but should be washed over. Wales were the better side and that’s that.
England should look at the positives, as the negatives mainly lie in Gatland’s tactical nous. Tom Curry played fantastically and, injuries permitting, Jones has found his back-row for Japan. Sam Underhill should fill the bench, but Mark Wilson, Billy Vunipola and Curry look the part. Vunipola is still slightly rusty, yet, with time he will ease back into his stride and dominate once again.
Jones has also found a phenomenal centre partnership in Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi. For the first time under Jones England’s midfield is looking well balanced and truly dangerous. Pair this with Owen Farrell at 10, and you begin to build your side. Farrell suffered a rare poor game against Wales, if he wants to lead England to World Cup victory then he will need to perform when the game starts to get away from him. He is possibly the best fly-half in the World and needs to step up in big matches without the aid of another 10 such as Sexton or Ford.
Jones’ biggest failing this Championship has been his failure to trust his subs. The beginning of his tenure was built on his reliance on ‘finishers’ who would close out the game. Many of these players are now starting matches as they leapfrogged the original starters. Now Jones is left with a fresh group of substitutes, he needs to learn to trust them. Especially relatively new faces such as Dan Robson and Ellis Genge, who could change the tempo of a game. If you can’t trust them in the Six Nations then how are you going to win a World Cup knockout game with everything on the line.
Jones should use the rest of this Six Nations to refine his squad, give people minutes off the bench and let his side gel as a unit. Italy and Scotland are not the most daunting of challenges, he should not panic and start dropping people, that would be catastrophic. Instead, use this time to prepare for the opening game in Japan.