Eddie Jones’s decision to drop Chris Robshaw not just from his starting line-up but from the entire 23-man squad for England’s second Test against the Springboks in Bloemfontein tomorrow is harsh but not without reason.
Although Robshaw wasn’t in great form for Harlequins towards the end of last season, I thought he played quite well in England’s 42-39 loss last weekend in Johannesburg and was far from the worst performer. But Jones can be ruthless. We saw proof of that when he hooked Nick Isiekwe — making his third Test start — after just 36 minutes when a resurgent South Africa were on the warpath.
In their place come Brad Shields at flanker and Joe Launchbury at lock. It’s clear by choosing Shields over Robshaw what Jones is trying address: England’s defence being exposed by the opposition getting quick ball at the breakdown.
England’s whole defensive premise is to defend the ball. It’s to fly up collectively as a line and close the ball off from the outside. They’re trying to swarm the ball-carrier or the receiver. If the ball makes it all the way out to the wing then they’ve not done their job.
What that means is that when teams play really, really fast against them, if there’s a breakdown you’ve got to get back on side. So you’re running back and then suddenly have to press forward. And when teams are coming at you fast, you can become really disjointed. Players can’t get back in time to then come out in a blitz again.
Saturday’s result was more proof — if it were needed — that teams have figured out how to beat this defence. It’s by playing super-fast. It’s by making sure that as soon as the tackle is made you get the clear-out super precise and get the ball away quickly. This is what’s cost Robshaw and why Jones has selected two back-rowers, Nathan Hughes and Mark Wilson, on the bench at the expense of a specialist second row. England need to slow the ball down at the breakdown.
It’s been a consistent theme in England’s defeats to Scotland, Ireland, the Barbarians and now South Africa that if the opposition has quick ball then they’re in lots of trouble. Nobody can reorganise themselves to make the tackles and inventive players can do what Springboks scrum-half Faf de Clerk did on Saturday and cause chaos.
So there’s real cause for Jones to make some changes. But it’s the method of doing so that I’d question — especially after more than two years into his reign when he doesn’t appear to have the midas touch he did at the start. Those shock tactics of dropping people unceremoniously and dragging them off the pitch can be effective to a certain degree. But once you start to do it too often, people can start to lose the respect of the coach. If you punch me in the face once, I might be shocked into working really hard. If you keep punching me in the face, then I’ll start to really get pissed off.