England’s new men struggled without Billy Vunipola but Jones will keep faith | Nick Evans

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

All the talk in the buildup to the start of England’s autumn internationals was how they would perform without Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje. But the biggest miss for Eddie Jones was Billy Vunipola.

Eddie was spot on when he said England just didn’t click, but while I thought a lack of cohesion would be understandable there was a fair bit more of it than I expected. And Vunipola’s absence is massive in that respect. Billy is such a huge focal point for England in terms of go-forward. He gives you 15-20 carries a game, it’s always over the gain line, and when you don’t have someone doing that it means you don’t have enough front-foot ball.

At times England looked good; when George Ford was able to get on the front foot he could bring players into the game, but it just didn’t happen enough. When Billy is there, it does. He’s their go-to man, he’s their talisman, and I’m not saying Nathan Hughes had a bad game – because he was actually one of the best players – but he just doesn’t have the impact that Billy has.

That then becomes a problem for the midfield because they can’t get into the game as much as they’d like, and I think we saw that with Henry Slade trying just a bit too hard. He was overeager to impact the game. Because England weren’t getting much of that front-foot ball, he wasn’t able to get the space he wanted. As a consequence, the centres weren’t much of a factor until the end of the game when it opened up a little bit more – Alex Lozowski came on, got that front-foot ball immediately and all of a sudden they were off. Danny Care was a big part of that, too, as the ball quickened up a bit more.

But I would have loved to have seen Slade at 13. I can’t remember the last time I saw him play at 12 – he seems to have always been 10 or 13 – and it’s important to bear in mind that it’s a very different position. People think, “oh, he’s right next to the outside-centre, it shouldn’t be too different”, but it really is. This is a fly-half talking here, but it’s like telling a loosehead to play tighthead because it should be pretty much the same. It doesn’t work like that.

With Slade at 13 and being that little bit wider, it gives him that bit more room. On Saturday he was right next to Ford and it didn’t seem to work – the two playmakers cancelled each other out. But having him in the wider channels, influencing things out there, would be great to see. The fact that there is no big ball carrier in the backs only emphasised how much they missed Billy. In terms of the 10-12-13, they’re all much of a muchness really. I know Jonathan Joseph isn’t a 10, but neither he, Ford nor Slade are going to bash down the house. Farrell will, because although he’s a playmaker he’s abrasive, he’s a bit different in that regard.

Additionally, if you have someone like Manu Tuilagi or Ben Te’o out there it makes a big difference, because defences have to watch them more. I’m a big fan of that approach, of having another ball player in the midfield, but having the big battering ram in the centres as well. That’s how Samu Kerevi did it for Australia against Wales or Robbie Henshaw for Ireland against South Africa, running these hard lines and opening up extra fractions of seconds for other players – like a Slade, or an Anthony Watson – to come into the line.

On the plus side for England, defensively they were comfortable, and while Paul Gustard will no doubt be frustrated with Argentina’s late try and a few too many penalties, he’ll be pleased with Sam Underhill. I’ve always been vocal about specialist openside flankers and how important they can be because, coming from the southern hemisphere, they’re a dime a dozen down there. It made a pleasant change to see a guy go out there for England, smashing into tackles and having the ability to be in the right place at the right time. If there was an area where he could improve it is being more involved in the attacking side of the game, watching Michael Hooper from Australia and New Zealand’s Sam Cane, the way they connect in the attacking structure – linking play by carrying in wide channels – we don’t see that from Underhill as much.

On the whole, I don’t think there’s cause for concern with Australia next up on Saturday. England will be a bit wary because the Wallabies are playing very well, but England will be much sharper because, after all, this was their first match for a long time.

Against Wales, Australia’s set-piece went reasonably well. But in attack they were excellent. Kurtley Beale had a really good game, so did Bernard Foley. Will Genia controlled things very nicely, and we saw what a good pair of half-backs can do with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton for Ireland against South Africa. That will be where England will need to shut them down.

I don’t think Eddie will make too many changes because he will want to give those newer players another go. Of course he will want to win, but this is the time to test these players out. If he wants to see how people react under pressure, then playing against Australia is perfect.

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