You would have forgiven the top brass in English rugby a broad smile on Saturday evening.
After one of the toughest years off-the-field, efforts on the pitch have been shown to be moving along rather nicely, and at an empty Twickenham last weekend, both England’s men and England’s women secured victories to continue an autumn so far without blemish.
Neither side was at their best. For the men, two moments of excellence from Jonny May rather covered for a lacklustre showing in attack. However, they seldom looked troubled by Ireland, a side in transition and short of stability at half-back and elsewhere, as England produced the sort of dominant defensive showing that is becoming typical of Eddie Jones’ side
Before Billy Burns’ clever late chip for Jacob Stockdale to gather and score, the English defence had gone almost three full games for the concession of just five points. Led by Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell, (by both word and action, Farrell particularly so, his barracking a constant throughout the game), England fed off each other’s energy, and when those hackles rise, they have the bite to match their bark.
“I think it is as important as the attack if not more important,” Sam Underhill, a key part of that defensive unit, said. “If you can weather the most a team has to throw at you and if you can get the ball back, it is as good a result as scoring. I think we are increasingly seeing the importance of aggressive defences, not just hitting people for the sake of hitting people but putting pressure on teams.”
Kyle Sinckler concurred: “It was just infectious when you see boys putting in such big hits. Everyone [is] just flying in wanting to get a piece of the action. We didn’t wait for Billy to make a big carry or Maro to get a big turnover or tackle, or Underhill or Curry to get a turnover. It was literally from the minute go, we just wanted it.”
If the adage that defence wins championships is true, then Jones will certainly have John Mitchell to thank if, and when, silverware comes England’s way.
Some struggles in attack are perhaps to be expected as Jones looks at his midfield options with George Ford still to be fully fit and Manu Tuilagi absent, but England have a defensive identity that is proving mightily effective.
Equally pleased with Saturday’s efforts, though in a very different way, was England Women Head Coach Simon Middleton as his side concluded an unbeaten year. Enduring a rare off-day from fly-half Katy Daly-McLean and the rest of the backline, and with a set-piece that again wobbled, Middleton’s side - with a number of new combinations - struggled to cope with a much-improved France, who were at times irresistible as they established superiority through to the hour-mark.
This was no bad thing. Middleton had spoken ahead of the game of the need for his side to face adversity and be properly challenged, and admitted he had worked his players incredibly hard during this period. A concern of their rapid improvement, driven by professional contracts and the strength of the Premier 15s, was that they would not have enough opportunities to display their fight and character in tough moments, given the Red Roses’ relative dominance in recent times, which could impact their ability to win crunch games at next year’s World Cup.
However, while their unbeaten run will now stretch to 18 months after a seventh successive win over France was eventually secured, the challenges that the French posed, led by the multi-talented lock Safi N’Diaye, livewire Laure Sansus and flying wing Cyrielle Banet, will serve England well.
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“With the character of the side, they found a way to win,” said Middleton. “That game was nowhere near what we’d have liked it to be, how we wanted it to pan out. That’s international rugby, it’s not always how you want it to be. We’ll learn a lot more from that than winning easy or staying in front.
“You can do as much team building off-the-field, but wins like that when you dig in together, they are the ones that define you as a group.”
Middleton’s bold move to introduce his entire bench on 60 minutes propelled England to the come-from-behind victory. Among this group were four World Cup winners, enviable resources on which to draw. That quartet included vocal leaders Marlie Packer, Nathsha Hunt and Emily Scarratt – a reminder of England’s squad depth, even in the absence of plenty of key names.
“We have got the best part of 15 international players sat at home injured,” Middleton continued. “We have got a lot of young players learning their trade at an accelerated rate, but I think from a strength in depth perspective, we come out of this year way better than we came into it.”
The Red Roses are now ranked as the number one team in the world, albeit in a year in which international rugby, particularly in the women’s game, has been severely impacted. They will enter 2021 neck-and-neck with defending champions and hosts New Zealand as favourites for next year’s World Cup.
The men’s aim is longer term – France in 2023 – but for now things are progressing well. They sit behind only South Africa in World Rugby’s rankings, and the world champions will not play a Test this year. Of active nations, then, they can purport to be the best side in the world; a win in a likely Autumn Nations Cup decider against France in two weeks’ time would further confirm that.
As both sides build towards their goals, these were two performances from which plenty of positives can be drawn. England are on top of the rugby world for the moment, and on Saturday both their men and their women gave the impression that they are well-placed to stay there.