The results and performances of these pre-World Cup international matches will be long forgotten by the time the champions of Rugby World Cup 2019 fly the William Webb Ellis back to their trophy cabinet later this year but they can still give us a strong indication on where a squad is on the road to potential success.
Wales are in a good place at the moment. They are top of a world ranking system that would baffle Einstein and back to winning ways, their identity is clear for all to see and the formula that won them the Grand Slam hasn’t been tinkered with.
Strong in the tackle, strong in the air and playing to all their strengths. Simple. Whether it works outside of the Principality Stadium is probably the only question that hangs over Warren Gatland’s men right now.
England on the other hand, still have questions to answer and riddles to solve.
There are combinations that have not quite clicked yet and that is only natural in their early development but with injuries always looming in the darkness, these combinations become more important.
For instance, George Ford isn’t going to be the starting fly-half and nor is Piers Francis at inside centre. What we can say though, both look dangerous when the game opens up and that is a promising sign for Eddie Jones. The back three on the other hand, although rich in talent, hasn’t looked as potent as the names involved suggest it should.
We haven’t seen Henry Slade play any part yet and niggling injuries to Ruaridh McConnochie has meant that Jones can’t experiment with any tactics in the back three.
Jonny May will probably get a run against Ireland and that would also be the time to see Anthony Watson at Full Back because Elliot Daly isn’t offering the attacking threat that is expected from him in returning a kick and is struggling at time to time in the air because of his timing.
Watson offers both skills in abundance and with the slow ball that England are churning out currently, the Bath Flyer is struggling to find room to cause damage from the wing.
Jonathan Joseph has been solid if not spectacular, but with no dangerous ball to play with, there is only so much that creative players can do at times.
Here in lies the biggest issue for England: Slow ball because of the breakdown.
The scrum is going well, the lineout decision making of where to throw is dubious when in attacking positions but the execution is on point.
In short; it was in the loose where England lost the match on Saturday.
Cheering the ball carrier on from afar is morale boosting I am sure but it doesn’t clear out the next breakdown. It isolates the ball carrier and causes a turnover.
England conceded 13 turnovers and 13 penalties in Cardiff at the weekend.
Either a ball carrier decided to run upright into four Red Shirts to ultimately be held up and lose the ball, or they would hit the deck so quickly that the watching cheerleading forward can’t affect a clear out.
The breakdown was refereed quite poorly in my opinion but that’s no excuse. It’s always refereed that way and England need to adapt. Countless times Josh Navidi or Alun Wynn Jones made a tackle, never made a clear release and got over the ball. Countless times they got away with it.
It’s not an excuse or a bitter piece of rhetoric from a frustrated fan, it’s part of the game and if the ref isn’t going to pick up on it, then you must manage the situation.
We’ve all watched enough rugby from around the globe to see where players are pushing the legal boundaries and go unnoticed.
It’s not just Wales that are brilliant at it. New Zealand, Australia, Scotland and Ireland all have canny operators over the ball and all of those teams will gobble up the men in white at the breakdown, just as they have in the past.
The English timing is completely off kilter. One man carries, the first man in waits until he hits the deck and then tries to clear out. It’s exactly how I was coached at Under 18 county level back in Cornwall. As much as I wanted to believe it at the time, that wasn’t the same intensity level as a test match!
The clear out in test matches nowadays starts as the man is falling to the floor so the first man in needs to be over that ball and ripping it away to the back feet as the ball carrier is being felled.
This isn’t a new problem for England either. It has been an Achilles Heel for years now. Scotland at Murrayfield in 2018, Ireland at Twickenham in 2018, Wales in Cardiff during this year’s Six Nations are more recent examples of a technical issue that goes back a generation.
In every one of the above matches, England were butchered at the break down.
Those English Chariots need momentum when they are playing. If England find rhythm then they are almost impossible to stop.
Wave after wave, attack after attack until the cracks appear and they get exploited.
Stop those waves and you stop England.
On Saturday, just as the visitors got any momentum, they were turned over at the breakdown. Wales are excellent at the breakdown and have always been that way under Gatland but it was like taking candy from a baby at times.
Tom Curry and Sam Underhill not being available is going to weaken any back-row’s mobility but it’s not purely their responsibility to secure ball.
Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Lewis Ludlam and Billy Vunipola are all back rowers or have played there for club and country. Most of the English pack are Saracens players and you can never get near their ball so what goes wrong with England?
The lack of clean, secure ball has to be put down to technique, timing or poor coaching.
I’m not brave enough to tell Eddie Jones that it is the latter face to face but if the situation is not rectified soon, England will become predictable to defend against and predictable in their results.
Ireland will provide another stern test at the breakdown and no doubt, Joe Schmidt will be targeting as an area that can reap huge benefits.
Jones’ biggest issue is that the rest of the world will be soon as well.