England may have lost the plot at Twickenham but grand slam winners could write another happy ending
How quickly modern rugby’s wheel of fortune spins. A few weeks ago Ireland were an irresistible force, enjoying such critical acclaim that back-to-back Six Nations grand slams seemed possible. Early last month it was England who were basking in the light, to borrow Billy Bragg’s classic line, of the 15 fame-filled minutes of the fanzine writer. And now? The 2019 Six Nations music is stopping with Wales gloriously on top.
If anyone should know how swiftly things can change, it is Warren Gatland’s newly crowned champions. As their previous captain Sam Warburton has pointed out, the last time they won a grand slam, in 2012, they went on an eight-Test losing streak. And Ireland? Anyone emerging from hibernation would struggle to equate the legendary green giants who knocked over New Zealand in November with the little green men so badly beaten in Cardiff.
It makes the achievement of Wales, with their 14 successive Test wins and second position in the World Rugby rankings, all the more impressive. Not for them the boom and bust model so prevalent elsewhere; Alun Wyn Jones, Josh Navidi, Hadleigh Parkes and Jonathan Davies have been rock solid throughout. If the 2019 World Cup was kicking off next month, Gatland’s men would be genuine contenders.
There are still six months, however, for everyone else to regroup and refocus for Japan. Rarely, too, has the spirit of Lazarus been so strong in top-level rugby. This year’s Six Nations began with Wales recovering from 16-0 down at half-time to beat France. When Scotland stood under their posts trailing 31-0 at Twickenham on Saturday evening, anyone suggesting they would shortly go 38-31 in front would have been quietly led away to the nearest secure unit. As with England, should their World Cup prospects be judged on the first half or the second?
Perhaps the only sure thing is that, consistency-wise, every team in Europe should use Wales as a benchmark. The greater the pressure the more it suits them; the louder the baying Principality Stadium crowd the more surely they respond. For all that England have scored 24 tries in five games – the second‑highest tally in Six Nations history – when the crunch came they morphed into malfunctioning Maybots.
Just as in Cardiff the flat-track bullies did not like it up ’em. What price, too, Eddie Jones’s pre-match guff about Wales being “tired”? The more Scotland poured forward, inspired by the outstanding Finn Russell and his alert lieutenants Ali Price, Sam Johnson and Darcy Graham, the more helpless England’s game-shapers appeared. Brawn is perfectly fine but, in tight spots, brain and composure are also essential.
Would England have been reeled in from 31-0 ahead, for example, with Alun Wyn Jones or Kieran Read at the helm? To see Jones hauling off his captain, Owen Farrell, was to have it officially confirmed that England had lost the plot. Farrell, in theory, should have been the ideal man to boot a Scottish revival back from whence it came but, as with Johnny Sexton, this has been a turbulent few weeks for him.
For Jones to float the theory that English rugby is still scarred by the national’s team’s psychological disintegration at their own 2015 World Cup was equally revealing. So this was all Stuart Lancaster’s and Andy Farrell’s fault? No one was talking about mental blocks when Jones’s team were winning 18 games in succession. Only the other day he was saying how much progress England had made attitude‑wise; there was precious little sign of it as Scotland ran amok.
Tactical periodisation, finishers, clarity … at times the gap between many of Jones’s soundbites and reality is huge. The truth is more prosaic: Gatland has out-coached and tactically out-flanked Jones and Joe Schmidt by a distance in this championship and left his opposite numbers with much thinking to do, not least in terms of encouraging players to think for themselves. The considered verdict of the former England prop Alex Corbisiero on Twitter – “England are overplayed & trained and need a plan B” – is difficult to dispute.
Of course England remain potential World Cup contenders – they were irresistible at times in the first half against the Scots – but, if they wish to lift the trophy, Jones also has to accept that less is occasionally more. His squad’s GPS data may be impressive but if his chain of command at 8-9-10-12 buckles under pressure it will count for nothing. “Tactically I think our game is pretty sound. We’ve just got to fix it up here,” Jones said, tapping his forehead. A frustrated George Kruis was equally blunt. “We probably weren’t humble enough,” the Saracens lock said, acknowledging England had paid the price of overconfidence.
Ireland, too, must now seek some fresh momentum. All of a sudden their opening World Cup pool fixture against Scotland in Yokohama has a far less certain feel about it, with Gregor Townsend the more upbeat of the two coaches. As for France, and Italy, any flickers of promise will remain relative until they start winning regularly away from home.
Wales, in that regard, are currently the market leaders. Should they top their RWC pool it is possible they could face either Argentina or France in the quarter-finals in Japan followed by South Africa or Ireland in the semis. With New Zealand, England and Australia all in the other half of the draw, they would have no reason to feel intimidated. Wales in a World Cup final? Their rivals cannot say they have not been warned.