Six Nations: England cannot dip favourites tag two weeks running
England’s first round Six Nations defeat at the hands of Scotland on Saturday was one which initially played into Eddie Jones’s well-worn line of the Calcutta Cup rivals being “red hot favourites”.
But in a 20-17 loss which sent England back south of the border with their tails between their legs, Jones’s side looked a shadow of the 23 who beat world champions South Africa in November.
Outplayed, outmuscled and outwitted, the visitors only dominated when it came to metres made – 719 to 456 – but that was largely down to Scotland’s inability to find touch in the opening exchanges.
The story of England’s afternoon came in tackle breaks, though, with their six successful breaks bettered three-fold by Scotland.
England were lacking in go-forward momentum among their backline; no powerful, hole-punching Manu Tuilagi-style player to make metres outside of Marcus Smith.
The match wasn’t one of classy running moves and outrageous individual skill, but a battle of rugby intelligence and decision making.
Luke Cowan-Dickie’s late yellow card and penalty try was a pivotal moment in the match. England were leading and that’s where Test matches are won and lost.
Following the defeat, Jones said: “Luke is disappointed, that happens in the moment. He played exceptionally well and he is very disappointed, but all the boys are supporting him.
“We only have ourselves to blame, it comes down to us not being clinical enough today.”
Cowan-Dickie said on social media: “[I] just want to apologise to all you supporters for today.
“I let myself and you guys down. Every time I play for my country I want nothing more than to make you guys proud.
“Thanks for all the support. Looking forward to bouncing back next week.”
Cowan-Dickie cannot be singled out as a catalyst for England’s loss – he carried over 100m in an otherwise solid performance.
But it’s those things on the pitch that leave people talking long after the full-time whistle.
Taking Smith off early was the most bizarre of calls, as was keeping Jack Nowell off until the final moments.
England failed to utilise plays which had worked so well for them in the autumn: the roaming winger combining with outright pace – the injured Jonny May and fellow wing Adam Radwan were the answer in November – yet nothing similar at the weekend.
There will be a sense of relief about Italy being England’s next opponents. We could see the return of Tuilagi, whose cameo for Sale yesterday was a welcome sight, or the return of Mark Atkinson – the closest thing England currently have to Smith’s club No12 Andre Esterhuizen.
Whatever happens, there will need to be changes. England’s player pool is by far the deepest out of the Home Nations and the reality is that there’s little reason why there shouldn’t be ample options available.
Jones last week said his chosen 23 were the best for this match and it remains to be seen as to whether he sticks with the same line-up for Italy.
There’s no doubting the Azzurri’s skill and ability – as they showed yesterday in Paris – but they’ve never beaten England before. There’s nowhere to hide in Rome next week and there is no denying England will be the red-hot favourites.