As this Six Nations keeps demonstrating, fortunes can turn on an instant in Test-match rugby. A whole year, therefore, can feel like an aeon.
Twelve months ago, Ireland had just beaten Italy after losing their first two matches of the tournament to Wales and then France. The common thread of those defeats had been their disjointed, inaccurate attack.
Before racking up 48 points in Rome, Mike Catt had spoken about the need to “nail what you create” because Ireland “probably could have scored two or three tries” more against Wales and France. Sound familiar?
Ireland were in the midst of a tactical evolution, striving to become more fluid and unpredictable in possession following an inconsistent 2020 shaped by two bruising losses at Twickenham. Their efforts were not yielding rewards on the scoreboard.
Eddie Jones wants England to pose similarly varied threats, but there have been growing pains.
Last week, from a training camp in Bristol, Harry Randall insisted that his side was “very close” to clicking ahead of a showdown with Ireland that will define the campaign. The scrum-half explained that missed chances against Wales masked their progress.
England breached the Wales 22 four times in the first half. Those visits, however, brought a total of three points. While acknowledging the profligacy, which restricted England to a 12-0 half-time lead that felt flattering to Wales given the hosts’ superiority, Randall stressed that the mood remained a confident one. He and his colleagues are content they are on the right track.
“That is the sort of vibe in the camp,” Randall said. “We have been very close to that sort of performance. Against Wales, on another day, we score two or three of those [chances] and at half-time we are up by 20 or 25 points. We feel we are very nearly there, [near] to really clicking.”
As pointed out afterwards by Jones, various factors thwarted England in the first half. Their first foray subsided with a Wales penalty for obstruction after Charlie Ewels and Kyle Sinckler ran into one another.
England also lost two of their own set-pieces, a scrum and a line-out, within five meters of the try line. On three further occasions, promising positions were squandered due to handling errors and another inaccurate line-out.
“It’s all different,” Jones said at full-time of the 23-19 victory. “We had a five-metre scrum against 14 men and we had the dominant scrum, which was evident, and we get penalized for an engagement infringement.
“If we don’t do that, we possibly score seven points and the game becomes completely different. A lot of the times, we were getting to the 22 quickly and then the defense line thickens, doesn’t it? Because the wingers don’t have to defend the back space. That’s where we struggled a bit to be more clinical around that area.”
Narratives are shaped by such sliding-doors moments. More concerning was that Jones recognized parallels with the loss to Scotland at Murrayfield. Once again, England faded and faltered in the second half as their lack of thrust in phase play failed to trouble a disruptive defense.
They registered only two more visits to the Wales 22, one of which was Alex Dombrandt’s controversial try.
Over the first three rounds of the Six Nations, England have visited the opposition 22 on 28 occasions. Their average of points per visit, boosted by their exploits at the Stadio Olimpico, is a meager 1.86. By that measure, the efficiency of their attack is worse than any other Six Nations side except Italy.