Let me begin this weekend’s column by praising Italy, Conor O’Shea and Brendan Venter. What they did in Twickenham wasn’t anything new, but it caught England by complete surprise and the Italian coaching team should be applauded rather than vilified.
Instead of Eddie Jones and some elements within the media calling for the laws to be changed, they should really be taking a long, hard look at England’s performance and the lack of leadership within the playing group. It was farcical at times when all we needed was for someone to engage with the Italians around the fringes.
It need not be a series of pick-and-goes, but an offloading game in and around the ruck. There was only ever one defender in a backstop role behind the ruck, so why didn’t we go through the middle?
It isn’t rocket science, and those who lead England’s attack really needed to offer some direction. George Ford and Owen Farrell needed to take the game by the scruff of the neck and force a change of tactics.
You go into a game expecting the odd surprise, albeit nothing to that level, but you have to adapt and play what’s in front of you. Despite England scoring six tries in a bonus point win, the Italians exposed a real weakness in terms of leadership within the English pack.
Eddie previously spoke about England lacking leaders, and it certainly rang true in Twickenham. We have also seen teams implement the “no-ruck” tactic in the past, but Dylan Hartley and those tasked with running England’s attacking game didn’t know how to react.
For me, much of what was spouted in Italy’s direction after the game was disrespectful and fails to acknowledge England’s failings.
Although neither England nor Ireland can look past their respective games against Scotland and Wales, following England’s failure to land more scores, Joe Schmidt’s side now hold a 29-point advantage over England in the scoring differential. If both sides were to win next weekend, this could prove to be a decisive factor in Ireland winning the championship.
In any event, I think England’s poor performance will spur them on against Scotland. Eddie will have two weeks to work with the squad and iron out a number of real problems. Michele Campagnaro was terrific in Twickenham.
Not only did the Italian centre bowl over George Ford for his try, but I have never seen anyone stand up Mike Brown like that. Likewise, Dries van Schalkwyk punched a lot of holes in the England defence, particularly in midfield, illustrating a potential weakness in the English midfield defence.
Ben Te’o brings a lot of positives, but defensively he is still learning the ropes in international rugby. While he might be a big hitter when attackers run straight at him, Te’o needs to learn to pick the right options when defending that outside centre channel.
Given the way Scotland are playing and their ability to move the ball quickly into the wider channels, if Te’o starts at 13, Finn Russell will want to put width on the ball early to test the Worcester Warriors centre.
The scrum was another cause for concern for Jones. Although some of the set-piece penalties awarded by Romain Poite were debatable, it was clear that Andrea Lovotti had put Dan Cole under a serious amount of pressure.
While Scotland might not be able to exploit this weakness, Jack McGrath and Ireland certainly have the potential to do so. CJ Stander and Sean O’Brien will also have looked on with glee as George Ford was bounced by Campagnaro, so Paul Gustard will have to formulate a way to prevent the fly-half being isolated in defence.
If England want to record back-to-back Six Nations triumphs, they will first have to answer these questions and plenty more over the course of the next few weeks.
Andy Goode, Pundit Arena
On this week’s Oval Office Podcast, Jacques Burger talks about his battle with depression, Benetton Treviso’s Ian McKinley reviews Italy’s performance against England and Daniel Killick of The Attacking Scrum tells us what’s gone wrong with Wales.