After the final whistle blew at the Stade de France on Sunday, after the cheers rang around the stadium and the players duly shook hands; Owen Farrell sidled up for an obligatory post-match interview. The man – made so famous for his smirk in the face of the All Blacks’ Haka last Autumn – had more the air of a schoolboy than an England captain. He looked hurt, he looked confused, but most of all he looked tired.
Farrell was not an exception to the rule. The words that stuck in my head after Sunday’s defeat in Paris are the words that haunt any performer, entertainer or professional sports player: ‘burn-out’.
England looked burnt-out physically, emotionally and imaginatively; and this tripartite vortex combined to produce a lacklustre performance that has left many calling for changes to the whole set-up of the squad that dismantled the All Blacks just 160 minutes of rugby earlier.
To be burnt-out physically is understandable. It’s been a long season for these England players and we’re only half-way through. For most it’s been a season that started in July with World Cup training camps and never really stopped from then. For some, members of the squad who played in the Premiership Final, it’s been almost non-stop since September 2018. Training camps, to World Cup Final, to Premiership, to Six Nations: this group of players have played more rugby in the last seven months than they will have ever before, and England’s bodies looked tired on Sunday as they came up against a very physical French side.
To be burnt-out emotionally was not only understandable but to be expected. Like I said, it’s been a long season, and one that will have left players psychologically drained. On the pitch, the highs of the near perfect victory over New Zealand – where the best team in the world were unravelled by England’s speed and physicality – to the lows just a week later in that demoralising Final defeat to the Springboks, is not to be underestimated. Off it, the start to the Premiership season has been defined by the drama surrounding the salary cap. I predicted it before Sunday’s game, whether personally involved or not, this will certainly have affected players going into this tournament.
Imaginative burn-out is the thing England fans should really be worried about. Against France, England played with no direction. It looked like they didn’t know not just how to score, but how they wanted to score. The same can be said for the World Cup Final against South Africa. Against physical sides that rush them, England seem to find it hard to pick holes in oppositions’ defences. The backs spent more time going side-to-side rather than forwards whilst the pack looked disjointed without the carrying potential of the Vunipola brothers.
Jones needs to make changes for Saturday’s Calcutta Cup. Lose that, and England are in danger of going into free-fall. We were promised a new England team, a new era after last Autumn’s World Cup Final, but at the moment, England look to be going backwards, not forwards.
By Will Sewell.