It is a damning indictment of England’s inability to find their attacking stride throughout this Six Nations that one of the players who emerges in credit never took to the field. For, in a strange way, this has been a good tournament for Owen Farrell. Certainly Manu Tuilagi’s importance to England has been magnified by his absence, their reliance on him laid bare, but Farrell’s return to the fold is likely at the first available opportunity given the problems Eddie Jones’s side have encountered.
It was a similar story against France. Ellis Genge’s running from deep and Freddie Steward’s aerial prowess were strong points but from early on in the contest it was apparent England were swimming against the tide. Steward managed to finish off a period of pressure for England’s eighth try of the tournament – or third in matches not including Italy – and one of those, against Wales, should arguably not have counted.
Had England’s attack clicked into gear, produced anything like the kind of rhythm to match the rhetoric coming from Jones and his assistants, the avenues back into the side for Farrell would have seemed fewer. Ben Youngs’s choice of word to describe how the attack has gone in practice – “clunky” – can often be an apt way of describing Farrell’s performances when he is out of form but you sense Jones will waste little time in turning to the Saracen on the tour of Australia this summer.
He is not everyone’s cup of tea and whether he is given back the captaincy is a debate for another day but Jones would expect his return to bring clarity because there were several occasions on Saturday night when England players were almost caricatures of cluelessness. Certainly, French pressure and the intensity of the atmosphere played their part but there were times when Youngs, Marcus Smith and Henry Slade seemed overcome by confusion, overwhelmed by indecision. “The improvement in our attack has been very good, the only thing we have not been able to do is to finish,” Jones said in one of his more obvious contradictions.
Suffice to say, England’s free, fluid formation has not been mastered. To again sum up the muddled thinking, Genge once more emptied himself but was as a result exhausted and came off second best at the scrum – an area of total English dominance the previous week against Ireland. To further illustrate, just look at how Jones used George Ford, the best kicking fly-half in England by a significant distance, throughout the tournament. Saturday was Smith’s least effective performance in an England jersey. He was evidently instructed to hoist the ball high for Steward to chase and still managed to create a few openings, though there were errors too, as seen with an overcooked cross-field kick for Jamie George.
Having hooked Smith early against Scotland, however, Jones was not prepared to do so again when Ford’s kicking, not to mention his familiarity with Steward and Youngs, would have been welcome. Indeed, if Jones was willing to sacrifice Harry Randall’s development temporarily in the interests of pragmatism with a recall for Youngs, why did the head coach not follow through and make a similar decision at fly-half?
It seems odd to be criticising England for not playing with enough structure but to return to the free formation that Jones insists is not far away from clicking, there must now be considerable scepticism it ever will. For all that it sounds bold, like the kind of thing supporters want to hear, there is something delusional about it. A bit like trying to recreate the Sistine Chapel before mastering the art of painting by numbers first.“There’s no doubt that at times it hasn’t been as fluid as we’d have liked, it’s been a little clunky,” Youngs said. “Attack is the hardest part of the game – there are so many moving parts, different things. We’ve had a number of different combinations. It needs to be fluid and we haven’t had that. If I were to sum it up I would say that at times it’s been a little bit clunky.”
It should also be noted that Warren Gatland had similarly grand designs with Wales before the penny dropped that his players needed structure and instruction from the coaches. There have been times during Jones’s reign that he has appeared to have reached a similar conclusion and even taking into consideration his insistence that the game is changing for the quicker, you have to wonder why he has decided to chase the rainbow now. Equally, you wonder whether it is entirely coincidence that perhaps the player most comfortable with the fluidity Jones seeks is Joe Marchant, the only member of the squad to have played Super Rugby, a brief spell on loan in Auckland.
Simon Amor was the fall guy 12 months ago and it remains to be seen whether his replacement as attack coach, Martin Gleeson, suffers a similar fate considering England’s failure to cross the tryline regularly. Judging by the Rugby Football Union’s endorsement of Jones’s project on Sunday, that seems unlikely. But when the head coach urges fans to have faith, it feels like a big request. Patience is wearing thin, promises of progress increasingly ring hollow and nowhere is that as evident as with England’s attack.