Wednesday 18 September 2019

England's strongest ever travelling squad appear primed to challenge for the highest honours in wide-open tournament

 

Tom Curry. Photo: Getty Images
Tom Curry. Photo: Getty Images

Ian McGeechan

Eddie Jones needs to stick to his game-plan, and keep Owen Farrell fit, says Ian McGeechan

Attitude: A+

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What has really impressed me about England during these warm-up games has been their patience. Whereas in the second half against Scotland in March they lost their heads and tried to force the pace, playing into Scotland's hands with helter-skelter rugby, in these matches - and again it was in evidence against Italy at St James's Park on Friday - England have been very disciplined.

Italy had lots of possession in that first half but England never panicked. They stuck to their game-plan, hitting their big men for one or two phases, forcing the Italian defence to consistently give ground.

Only then would they get the ball out to their strike runners. If nothing developed, England kicked in behind Italy. They invited Italy to counter, or even better, kick to touch, when they could really disrupt the Italy lineout. Defensively England were well organised. Preventing Italy from scoring from that 23-phase drive was a big moment and the "zero points conceded" tally at the end will have delighted Eddie Jones. And when Italy tired, England went to town. Most significantly, they kept the decision-making on the field. They did not need any direction from the stands.

Game-plan: A

There is a real tactical clarity about England, with their power game giving them such a solid platform. They have so many carriers. If three men are tied up in a ruck, they have another four or five they can hit short. And that is just the forwards. With Manu Tuilagi back, England also have power in the backs.

That physicality, particularly in the front five, has allowed Eddie to tweak his back-row so England are now very effective at the breakdown, too.

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The emergence of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill - two genuine sevens - has been a boon. England's game-plan is simple: physically overwhelm their opponents, attack the breakdown, wait for the holes to open up, then hit their strike runners, or if the defence comes short, kick cross-field or go two passes out and kick up the wide channels.

If nothing develops, they are not afraid to kick long and pin the opposition in their own half.

And England's strength at the lineout means they don't mind their opponents kicking to touch, or kicking directly to touch out of their own 22.

Strength in depth: A+

Is this the best England squad ever sent to a World Cup? The 2003 group was incredible but this squad runs deeper. There is strength and depth in every department.

Front-row? Mako Vunipola is world class. Then you have Joe Marler and Dan Cole for steadiness, and Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler for explosiveness.

The second-row features an embarrassment of riches, with four world-class locks. Maro Itoje and George Kruis are the first-choice pairing. But Courtney Lawes will be involved in every game, either starting or from the bench, given he can cover six if you want added physicality or an extra lineout jumper. Joe Launchbury is a wrecking ball when fit.

The back-row is hugely improved. Billy Vunipola is back, but no longer looks to be carrying the team.

Curry and Underhill have been a revelation. And Mark Wilson is an unsung hero. He reminded us on Friday why he was England's player of the Six Nations.

In the backs, Ben Youngs had his best game for a long time on Friday. While England now have genuine options in the midfield, depending on whether Owen Farrell plays 10 or 12, and Manu Tuilagi 12 or 13. George Ford has really pushed on too, a big plus.

In the back three, Anthony Watson made a convincing return at 15. I would not be surprised if Eddie retained him at 15 for the opener against Tonga to give him more game-time there.

Overall: A

There are no glaring weaknesses. I think Eddie Jones will be slightly concerned about the scrum, which has struggled on occasion in the warm-ups.

He would like to have given some game-time to Henry Slade and Jack Nowell. Scrumhalf could be a problem if Youngs or Willi Heinz gets injured.

Integrating a Ben Spencer at this stage might be tricky. And then there is Owen Farrell. If England need to keep one man fit it is him.

He is their leader, the heartbeat. And one thing so often underappreciated is his goal-kicking which is 90 per cent. Every great team has had a great kicker.

So can they win World Cup? Undoubtedly. England have the players and personnel to win what looks like a wide-open tournament.

If they stick to their game-plan, play to their potential and get a bit of luck, they need fear no one. England have not yet played New Zealand or South Africa, of course, and are likely to meet one or the other at the semi-final stage.

And yes, they will not get across the gain line as easily against teams packing similar firepower. But if they stay patient, chances will come. And if they do not, they have a varied kicking game, a mean defence, and in Farrell, someone to keep the scoreboard ticking over. England will fly to Japan full of confidence. Justifiably so.

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Telegraph.co.uk

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