Steve Thompson, speaking exclusively to 888sport, suggested prior to the World Cup that whilst England are clearly a side of real quality, they don’t have the required mental strength and attacking variety to eventually triumph as World Cup champions. Have the first two games bared this out?
Well, whilst Thompson’s prediction that “England don’t know how to win games” has been proved patently untrue, his comments on Billy Vunipola ring particularly true:
“Billy, he really is pivotal,” Thompson said last week, “and it will be interesting in that first game against Tonga they will go for him [as proved the case, although it was an ordeal he came out of well]. They really will go for him. If Vunipola gets an injury our game-plan could literally fall apart. That’s how big a player he is.”
Certainly, this reliance on Vunipola’s front foot ball could prove England’s undoing. There is a sense that if a top quality side matches England up front then perhaps George Ford will not look quite as assured and classy as he did against the Americans today.
This is the view of Thompson anyway, “I don’t think a 10 and 12 of Farrell and Ford is a World Cup winning combination. It doesn’t work,” he said.
Thompson went on, “Ben Youngs is the same. He’s not a leader but a maverick and he’s one of the problems at times when the games are going off a bit. He seems to lose the plot a bit. And he’s supposed to be one of the leaders? That’s a worry for me.”
Indeed, the England leadership group seems one of the key issues with this current squad. A lot has been made of the evolution that Jones has enforced in terms of personnel (ditching loyal lieutenants in Hartley, Robshaw, Care and Brown for instance) but this process has left the squad shorn of experience and leadership. Owen Farrell is an exceptional player, but is he a natural captain?
One of the few players who really stands out as a leader, however, is Jamie George. An abrasive, dynamic number two himself, Thompson knows a fair amount about quality front rowers, and in his eyes, Eddie Jones has the best hooker in the world at his disposal in George.
“The game has totally changed now and what he’s got makes him the complete hooker. The way he is around other players as well means he is one of the most important players in our squad.”
George is the archetypal modern hooker, an efficient operator in the tight, but also capable of offering creativity in the wide spaces. He has evolved into a complete player, and only Malcolm Marx and Dane Coles can hold a candle to him.
Much of what Thompson predicted, then, appears to be the case. Nevertheless, it is hard to read too much into the last two performances. Whilst the score lines suggest comfortable victories, England are unlikely to be truly satisfied.
They have lost the fluency that was so integral in the victory in Ireland at the start of the Six Nations. That must be the template for a complete performance. To beat Argentina and France they will need to find it again.
Written by Joe Ronan
Read the full 888sport interview with Steve Thompson, including his thoughts on why Jamie George is the complete hooker and the best in the world