Six Nations: Where are Eddie Jones' stalled England going wrong?

By Mike HensonBBC Sport

"We need to reset."

But how might, or should, England change as they power down in the wake of a miserable Six Nations?

Here's where it went wrong. And the fixes that could help.

Sluggish starts

Jonny May
Jonny May's score inside the first two minutes against Ireland in 2019 was part of a run of fast starts that has come to a sudden end

This is a strange one.

England's fast starts used to be a trademark. Underdog victories over Ireland and New Zealand in 2019 were built on precisely constructed, high-intensity opening salvos.

In fact, in every one of their five 2019 Six Nations games they scored the first try. On three occasions, their opening score came inside two minutes.

This season has been a very different story. England have conceded the first try in their past seven matches. They have scored only five first-half tries in this year's Six Nations, three of which came against Italy.

In an age of scrutiny and opposition analysis, is Jones holding back some of England's pre-cooked moves to be served with a flourish at the start of a contest that really matters? Or do England need a different dressing room voice to re-discover their early focused ferocity?

Discipline

Maro Itoje
Maro Itoje alone conceded five penalties in the defeat by Wales

Sir Clive Woodward left England with a slew of acronyms, mottos and management gems in the wake of the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

One to have stood the test of time is his emphasis on discipline. Woodward insisted his side keep their penalty count down to single figures in any given match.

England have not hit that target in any game in this year's Six Nations, conceding a total of 67 penalties across their campaign.

England's indiscipline has often come in quickfire bursts that shift the momentum of matches.

Against Wales, England had clawed their way back to within a score deep in the second half.

However, replacements Ellis Genge, Charlie Ewels and Dan Robson gave away a penalty each in the space of four minutes to take play from one end to the other and allow Callum Sheedy to kick Wales out of range.

England invited referees Wayne Barnes and Matt Carley into training to give them pointers on how to stay on the right side of the law.

Could switching the captaincy from Owen Farrell to a forward, where most penalties are conceded, sharpen England's concentration?

Defence

John Mitchell and Shaun Edwards
England defence coach John Mitchell meets France counterpart Shaun Edwards

England have conceded more points in this Six Nations - 121 - than any of the previous 21 editions of the competition.

Especially painful will have been the set-plays that both France and Ireland pulled to score off first-phase ball - a cardinal sin for the modern defence coach.

In the wake of Damian Penaud's slick score off a line-out, France attack coach Laurent Labit went public with the weaknesses they had spotted in England, claiming they over-protect George Ford and that Henry Slade tends to turn in-field in defence.external-link

In defence of the defence, England have conceded only two more tries than when they won the tournament in 2020. Indiscipline giving up more penalty shots at goal made up the majority of points against them.

Depth in key positions

Paolo Odogwu
Wasps centre Paolo Odogwu was part of the Six Nations squad but didn't play a minute

England have a huge amount of experience.

The team that took the field against Ireland had 767 caps between them, an average of more than 50 each.

However, it comes at the cost of an imbalance. Many of the stand-ins, second choices and up-and-comers have seen little game time, particularly in key positions.

Scrum-half Ben Youngs, 31, has 109 caps. Understudy Dan Robson, 29, has just 12, all of which have come off the bench. The uncapped Harry Randall, and Ben Spencer - both younger options - have four caps between them.

At number eight Billy Vunipola is first choice whenever fit. Despite his self-confessed poor form, there is no obvious replacement specialist ready to step in.

Zach Mercer has given up hope and headed to France.external-link Bristol's Nathan Hughes sounds pessimistic on any hope of adding to his 22 caps.external-link Exeter's Sam Simmonds, the European player of the season, hasn't played a Test for three years. Harlequins' Alex Dombrandt never has.

Jones told BBC Sport earlier this month that the talent just isn't there in some positions. Others would argue it isn't being given a chance.

Attacking style

Henry Slade and Owen Farrell
Henry Slade and Owen Farrell have been England's first-choice midfield in Manu Tuilagi's absence

After more than five years of Jones' reign, Manu Tuilagi has made only 14 starts for England.

But his absence is almost as big as his impact.

The injury-hit centre's direct threat fixes defenders and frees up space for England's dangerous back three.

His runs in the team have coincided with a near miss in the 2019 Six Nations, a run to the Rugby World Cup final, and the 2020 Six Nations title.

The combination of Owen Farrell and Henry Slade in midfield lacks the same punch and, with Ollie Lawrence and Paolo Odogwu afforded little, if any, game time, England seem to have lost a whole gameplan with one player sidelined.

Richie Mo'unga, Finn Russell and Matthieu Jalibert have brought more attacking threat at fly-half for New Zealand, Scotland and France respectively in recent years.

Harlequins' Marcus Smith, or even Max Malins, could do similar if Jones decides to take the team in another direction.

The coach?

Six Nations 2021: England finished the tournament better than we started - Jones

The big question.

Jones extended his contract through to the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup less than a year ago, and set his sights even higher than securing England's second world title in France.

"We want to be the team that is remembered as being the greatest team the game has ever seen," he said.

Such claims sound like unnecessary hubris rather than healthy ambition after defeats by Scotland, Wales and Ireland in the same springtime campaign for the first time since 1976.

From the best team in history to the worst in their own backyard.

Jones has denied that he is struggling to inspire his players.

But England is the longest stay in a coaching career that spans a quarter of a century and has been characterised by a work ethic that burns through assistants at a furious rate.

After guiding England to the Rugby World Cup final a little more than a year after six successive defeats and another fifth-place Six Nations finish, he will argue he should see his contract through.

The Rugby Football Union, which made a raft of job cuts in recent months, is unlikely to have any appetite to add Jones to the redundancies.

Adding a voice that brings specialist knowledge and helps bridge a generation gap between 61-year-old Jones and his players might be an option, however.

Paul O'Connell's appointment at Ireland has helped both the team environment and line-out. Steve Borthwick, a similarly respected recent retiree, has not been properly replaced since he left in the summer.

Australian ex-league international Jason Ryles, who was due to step into Borthwick's shoes, has stayed down under because of Covid restrictions with 28-year-old Jersey Reds coach Ed Robinson filling in on a temporary basis.

'Release clause in Jones' contract'

BBC rugby union correspondent Chris Jones

Jones has a contract until 2023, and has long spoken about his desire to have England peaking for that tournament in France.

However he has also acknowledged in the past that all coaches - especially those at international level - have a shelf life, and now the RFU must decide whether Jones has taken the team as far as he can, or whether he will be able to refresh the squad as he did to good effect in 2018.

A review into England's worst tournament since the 1970s will now take place as a matter of urgency, and it's understood there are release clauses in the contract for either party to activate if need be. This means the RFU don't have their hands tied by the financial impact of ending the contract early.

If the RFU do decide change is needed, there are no shortage of candidates internally, or in the English Premiership, or overseas. Coaching England is perhaps the biggest job in the world game and the socially-distanced queue of potential replacements would snake for miles outside Twickenham.

England's Six Nations finishes under Jones
20161st (Grand Slam)
20171st
20185th
20192nd
20201st
20215th

England's highs and lows since 2019 World Cup

October 2019 - Knock out defending champions New Zealand in World Cup semi-finals

November 2019 - Suffer deflating 32-12 loss against South Africa in final

February 2020 - France inflict opening-round defeat in the Six Nations

October 2020 - Clinch Six Nations title with win in Covid-delayed match against Italy

December 2020 - England lift Autumn Nations Cup after extra-time win over France

February 2021 - Scotland win at Twickenham for first time since 1983

February 2021 - Wales inflict 40-24 defeat on England in Cardiff

March 2021 - Late Maro Itoje try gives England victory over much-fancied France

March 2021 - Dismal defeat by Ireland in Dublin

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