In the minutes before England went out to warm-up for their match against Wales last Saturday, Eddie Jones gave the team a last pep talk. “This is the day, boys, where you can really put the team forward,” he told them. “And old England and new England come together.”
Two hours later, they had won 23-19 but Jones, and everyone else, was still waiting for that performance he had spoken about. England are at an awkward stage, caught between the way they used to play and the way they want to, while Jones tries to blend a group of new young players with the survivors from the squad that lost the World Cup final in 2019.
They have been working on it in Bristol this week on a three-day training camp at Clifton college, before their back-to-back matches against Ireland and France, the two best teams in the tournament. England have it in them to beat both but will have to play better than they have done. England cannot afford to keep waiting for that moment when everything clicks.
“That’s definitely the vibe in the camp,” says Harry Randall. “We feel we’ve been very close, like in that first-half performance against Wales. On another day we could have scored two or three of those chances and then at half-time we’d be up by 20, 25 points. So we feel like we’re very nearly there.”
England had more than 60% of the possession in the first half against Wales, just like they did when they lost to Scotland, but did not manage to score a try in either half. So a lot of the work now, Randall says, “is around what we do when we get into their 22 and we’re putting them under pressure, how can we be more clinical in that area.”
Jones has been drilling them in this new “free-formation” attack, which in theory means that after the first couple of attacking phases, everything should be unpredictable and fluid, with the playmakers making spontaneous decisions, and runners swapping in and out of positions.
But as Jones has said, that depends on the understanding between the scrum-half, the fly-half, the inside centre and the men around them, who all need to be able anticipate one another’s thinking and organise themselves accordingly in the split-seconds available. So far in this Six Nations, England have not seemed to have the confidence or cohesion to make it work.
Randall believes it is coming. “The more you play with someone the better connection you have,” he says. “I’m really enjoying playing with Marcus [Smith]. We’re still learning a lot from playing with each other. It’s about building that partnership and connection on and off the field, because that 9-10 axis is very important to controlling the team.
“I’ve played four games with him now, we’re slowly getting there game by game. Hopefully, we get the chance to play with each other more but training is probably the best place to keep on working at that connection. We sit down after and go through clips, talking to each other about what we both want. You get out what you put into it.”
England fans will not necessarily thank him for it, but for Jones, all this is a bet on being ready by the next World Cup. You can hear him thinking about it in the way he has been talking. He has described these last three matches as a quarter-final, semi-final and final and is encouraging the players to think that way. Time is getting tight there, too, given how much team-building they still have to do. Smith is 23, Randall 24 and they have played 12 Tests between them. After these two games they have the summer tour to Australia and three autumn internationals, one more Six Nations and then into the World Cup warm-up matches.
Which explains why Jones has finally decided to move Randall into the starting XV, when the position has belonged to Ben Youngs for the past four years. After 115 caps Jones knows exactly what he will get from Youngs: he is steady, accurate and does not make many bad decisions. Jones trusts him to run the game.
But Randall offers the promise of something different, something a little more threatening, a little “zip-zip” Jones calls it. He brings a pace to the game and a threat around the breakdown the team have not really had in that position since Danny Care played his last game in the autumn of 2018.
“I was delighted,” Randall says when asked how it felt to start against Wales, “but it doesn’t matter if I start, he starts, or Raffi Quirke comes in. Whoever it is we’ve got to do what’s best for the team.”
Which might be true but they, and everyone else, need to grow into the new roles, with Youngs playing finisher, and “squadfather”, to the group, while Randall gets used to setting the tempo in the first hour of the match. Randall says they dovetail well.
“We work together a lot, do a lot of passing and kicking, always learning off each other. Ben is the most-capped men’s international now so it’s pretty awesome to be learning off him. We’ve got a good relationship, we help each other out, we always talk and connect with each other about things. It’s good to bounce off each other and give each other ideas.”
The idea is that one of these days all this study is going to have to pay off and England will spring forward. Jones will hope it is sooner rather than later.