England’s attacking intent leading way for northern powerhouses

An infectious mix of ‘S Club’ heaven has helped reinvigorate England’s team with the path to the World Cup looking bright

The results from the autumn series are in and they make for deeply uncomfortable southern hemisphere reading. Not for 19 years have South Africa, New Zealand and Australia all lost on European soil on the same day and Ireland’s victory over Argentina duly completes a clean sweep which should give the Rugby Championship’s finest plenty to ponder over their Christmas holidays.

Maybe the pattern is not entirely a surprise given how long the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies have spent away from home in the Covid-affected line of duty. New Zealand have looked distinctly weary in defeat in both Dublin and Paris and when South Africa, playing their 13th Test in barely four months, were asked to perform one last encore at a raucous Twickenham they were ultimately not sharp enough to deliver it.

Then again, there is equally no question that rugby’s northern powerhouses are growing in strength and depth. What price New Zealand, who have not lost back-to-back Tests against European opposition away from home since 1935-36, when they face France in Paris in the opening pool game of the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Would anyone now bet the farm on South Africa turning over the Irish in Pool B? And how much better can England become having cast off the tactical shackles that had slowed any progress under Eddie Jones to a crawl?

It has taken a while but fair play to Jones and his latest assembly line of assistant coaching boffins for finally taking the plunge and freeing up England to play with more purpose and attacking intent. If it was attitude and late resilience that underpinned their thrilling 27-26 victory over the world champions at Twickenham, it is the rising confidence behind the scrum that has been perhaps this autumn’s biggest upside.

Gone, thankfully, is the negative aerial obsession that characterised last winter, replaced by an infectious new mix of “S Club” heaven. Marcus Smith, Henry Slade and Freddie Steward have all been autumnal shooting stars, offering England skill, energy, fresh ideas and important new focal points. Don’t stop moving is also becoming their team’s new unofficial signature tune, as evidenced by the three well-taken tries that ultimately did for the usually impenetrable Boks.

Add in the excellent Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Raffi Quirke and the underused Adam Radwan and there is pop-up danger, flexible thinking and creative pace to burn all over the place. Whether by accident or design – and the absence of Owen Farrell from two of the three autumn Tests cannot be omitted from the end-of-year ledger – Jones has found his best starting fly-half, centre and full-back for the foreseeable future. England appear visibly better balanced as a result.

Henry Slade
Henry Slade’s performance increased England’s attacking intent against South Africa. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

At this point fans of England – who conceded only one try in three autumn games and have not lost when leading at half-time for two and a half years – will understandably be pressing the palms of both hands tightly together and praying Manu Tuilagi’s hamstrings can be soldered back together to allow him to rejoin the party. If the big man had spent more than eight minutes on the field on Saturday, the chances are the opposition would have enjoyed their fluctuating afternoon even less.

But, equally, consider the damage England could inflict when and if some rumbustious injured forwards – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Jack Willis, the bullocking young Alfie Barbeary – are able to join the fray with Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds and Jamie George also in full cry. While there were moments of concern in the second half against South Africa for England’s scrum and maul, not to mention a crushingly heavy penalty count, the unquenchable spirit of all involved was impossible to miss.

If it was not quite the most satisfying win over the Springboks of Jones’s career – Japan’s 2015 RWC pool win in Brighton will forever retain that mantle – it did allow the head coach to put further clear water between his squad’s current state and their fifth-placed finish in the 2021 Six Nations. England have just beaten two of the top three ranked sides in the world and their leader is perfectly entitled to seek to airbrush two awkward years – “I never thought we were on the wrong lines” – completely out of the frame.

This week he will be heading to France to check out potential World Cup camps, reassured that his keynote decision to crop the Vunipola brothers and George Ford out of the autumn picture was correct in the context of the 2023 tournament. “It is never pleasant but it is an important and necessary part of the job,” said Jones. “The timing is never right. Sometimes you get criticised for doing it too quickly, sometimes you get criticised for doing it too slowly and sometimes you get criticised for both. There’s never a right or wrong time to do it but you have to back your judgement and then get on with it.”

Whether Jamie Blamire, Bevan Rodd, Trevor Davison, Alex Mitchell, Mark Atkinson and some of England’s other unheralded November participants all make the World Cup squad remains to be seen but for Smith, Steward and Slade, in particular, the past three weeks have been gloriously life-affirming. Jones remains averse to praising Smith excessively – “He’s going to be good, mate, as long as you blokes don’t pour too much poison in his head” – but the evidence is clear to those prepared to look beyond their own parochial rugby kingdoms. The armies of the north are on the march once again.


Robert Kitson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mike Brown plays minder to England’s maverick wing Jonny May
Wing’s odd behaviour has got his England team-mates chuckling but Mike Brown said they are deadly serious about beating Australia

Robert Kitson

29, Nov, 2016 @10:00 PM

Article image
Danny Care’s kicking game makes him England’s No1 scrum-half contender | Nick Evans
Saturday’s match against Samoa can provide an excellent chance for Harlequins’s Danny Care to press home his case with Eddie Jones to be England’s No1 scrum-half

Nick Evans

19, Nov, 2017 @10:16 PM

Article image
England’s Underhill and Te’o opt not to wear ‘uncomfortable’ rainbow laces
Members of the England team have opted not to wear rainbow laces for the match against Australia amid claims they cause too much discomfort

Gerard Meagher

23, Nov, 2018 @10:00 PM

Article image
Nathan Hughes could miss England’s autumn campaign after citing for punch
Nathan Hughes is facing the prospect of being suspended for all of England’s autumn internationals campaign after he was cited for punching Lewis Ludlow in the head

Gerard Meagher

08, Oct, 2018 @5:17 PM

Article image
Eddie Jones turns to England’s big hitters to give Australia nightmares | Robert Kitson
The coach has named a strong, pacy side to take on his native country but can he get Owen Farrell and Marcus Smith to gel?

Robert Kitson

11, Nov, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
England’s Lions players set to bypass rest agreement for autumn Tests
England’s British & Irish Lions are poised to be available for all three autumn internationals in November despite an agreement which stipulates they will have a week off on welfare grounds, the Guardian understands

Gerard Meagher

28, Sep, 2021 @8:45 PM

Article image
England’s Ben Youngs seeks overdue victory against bruising South Africa
England are planning to give South Africa a taste of their own medicine as they look to end a 10-year stretch without a win against the Springboks

Robert Kitson

07, Nov, 2016 @10:00 PM

Article image
Chris Robshaw injury has England’s back row looking paper thin
Chris Robshaw’s knee operation has ruled him out for eight weeks, further depleting England for the autumn internationals

Robert Kitson

16, Oct, 2018 @7:14 PM

Article image
Jones turns England’s focus towards Six Nations after autumn progress
Eddie Jones believes mental fatigue caused by Covid restrictions was a significant reason why the major southern hemisphere nations failed to stay the distance in the autumn series in Europe

Robert Kitson

22, Nov, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
Expected early returns for George Kruis and Ben Te’o ease England’s worries
Eddie Jones has been spared an early-season headache as two of his key players look set to return from injuries sooner than was first thought

Gerard Meagher

05, Sep, 2017 @9:18 PM