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England’s Defence Must Improve If They Hope To Win Third Six Nations In A Row

England find themselves second in the Natwest 6 Nations table behind Ireland who lead on points difference. I’ve watched both of England’s opening two fixtures and we have seen a side that has shown they can win an open game like the one in Rome but also in a tense, arm wrestle like the weekend just gone in a wet and cold Twickenham.

England were always going to have too much strength to beat Italy no matter how tough the home side’s resilience was early in the game. Eddie Jones would have enjoyed the way that his team built into that game. Round 1 of the competition is going to be hard no matter who you are playing, just because of exactly that, it’s Round 1.

Like many of the sides in this year’s Six Nations, England are missing key personnel but have not looked like a side short of some of their best players, exactly what the coaching team would like to have seen from the deeper squad. Sam Simmonds made his mark in Rome and showed defensive qualities as well as getting through a heap of work in attack culminating in two physically impressive tries. Maybe Eddie Jones has found a solution long term to his back row mix? Certainly, the power he possesses will frighten other teams. He was largely quiet against Wales but it was a battle of the kicking game and for both sides, the top ball carriers were found in the back-three. As a player, you need to contribute where the game allows and not chase the game. He carried hard and fulfilled his defensive roles, he did what was asked, but England will hope he can influence games as he did in Rome when hopefully he returns from injury after the Scotland game.

Much has been made of the midfield combinations that England could choose. Some would opt for Owen Farrell at fly-half and bring in another centre but I think that George Ford/Farrell axis is central to how the
side functions. It helps when Farrell is arguably the best player in the world right now but the understanding and intuitive nature of the relationship between the two allows England to function very effectively. Two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, two pairs of hands and a pair of very intelligent rugby brains drive Jones’ side around the field with purpose and clarity. They would prefer to play with ball in hand but when required manage the game with brilliance. The Wales win was a clear example of that. England won that kicking battle convincingly and due to the conditions and their lack of kicking accuracy and direction, Wales just couldn’t get started. England have a Plan B to fall on when Plan A doesn’t work. I’m not convinced Wales or certainly, Scotland do and that’s what sets them apart.

England have missed more than 40 tackles in the two games they have played and 17 of those were against Italy. If you go back to the conditions on Saturday, you would have expected England to be able to keep the figure much lower on this front too. As a side constantly striving to get better they will need to address defence so that they can move into the crucial part of this year’s Six Nations with confidence. What has got them out of jail has been the opposition’s lack of accuracy when making the break but also individual desire in the scramble defence. Sam Underhill’s brilliant tackle at the weekend epitomised this. Defence is what performances are built on and it’s an area that needs improvement for sure.

That said, two from two, Eddie Jones will be a happy man. Eight tries in two games isn’t a bad return when you think they scored two great tries in the rain. I can’t wait to head to Murrayfield to see what performance the side produce against an increasingly confident Scotland. The defence will need to be rock steady and the number of missed tackles needs to decrease towards the end of this tournament or England’s target of a Six Nations won’t be achieved. They look good though and the nature of the win against Wales shows they can adapt the way they play should the need arise, a good sign as an English fan.

Author: Tom May

Tom May enjoyed a 19-year rugby career at the very top. He represented England, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Northampton Saints and London Welsh . Since retiring, Tom has worked for ESPN, BT Sport and Pundit Arena.

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