Just like the origin of the infamous Monty Python quote, England rugby’s performances in recent months have been nothing short of comical. Previously touted as favourites, Eddie Jones’ once exciting side have had their World Cup chances torn to shreds following six consecutive defeats. But is it all that bad?
The recent losses may have rocked many fans, but not I. You only have to look at the players missing and the areas that have been exposed on the pitch to understand that not all hope is lost for English rugby. As a sporting nation, we have lacked a true out and out openside-flanker in the last few years with the Haskell/Robshaw 6 ½ position being hyped up beyond belief. In an ideal world, we would have a David Pocock or Richie McCaw lining the side of our scrum, but alas, World Rugby state that your nationality actually matters when being selected for international rugby (tell that to Brad Shields and the Vunipola brothers).
Masked by the arrival of Shields to the England camp, there is a plethora of exciting English backrowers waiting desperately for their shot in the hallowed white shirt. Take Tom Curry as an example, the 20-year-old Sale prodigy has averaged 11 tackles and one turnover a match, with an 86% tackle rate since debuting in early 2018. At 20, these stats are only going to get better with age. Likewise, compatriot Sam Simmonds set the Premiership alight this season with electric pace and deft handling skills, showcasing the evolution of backrowers in recent years. His dynamic playing ability adds real quality and the element of unpredictability that the England pack has often lacked. But I think the most exciting thing about these two players is that finally England have backrowers that are actually backrowers, no longer will we be trying to plug round holes with square pegs.
Perhaps the greatest factor in England’s woeful form is the absence of Billy Vunipola: world-class when fit, this man can change a game, his physical presence on the field is unrivalled in world rugby. Without his sheer power and natural born talent, England have looked toothless at times, yet his injury is perhaps the best thing that could have happened at this stage of the World Cup build-up. It forced the otherwise stubborn Eddie Jones to change his line-up, allowing the likes of the Simmonds to step into the limelight. This gave these young stars much needed experience of life at the elite level. By doing so, Jones has been able to develop depth of the highest quality, which will be vital when approaching the World Cup, a competition where top quality squad depth decides who will triumph.
No example better exemplifies how important strength in depth is than the 2011 World Cup final. When, after just 34 minutes New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pulled up injured, having previously come in to cover the injured demigod Dan Carter. It then came down to fourth choice number 10 Stephen ‘Beaver’ Donald (capped 23 times) to see off the remaining 56 minutes. Despite not expecting to be on the coach down to Auckland prior to the tournament, Donald played the game of his life as he kicked the final penalty to secure the All Blacks’ first World Cup since the inauguration of the tournament 24 years previous.
If fans unite and support the exciting new talent being welcomed into Jones’ side, then success at the 2019 World Cup is a real possibility. Sketchy form? Injured star players? A stubborn coach? Tis but a scratch…