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England’s risk-averse game blunts their threat and Six Nations ambitions

A lack of freedom and adaptability in Eddie Jones’s gameplan allowed Wales to emerge victorious in Cardiff

England’s Owen Farrell (centre) and Ben Youngs failed to make use of cross-field kicks to put pressure on Wales. Photograph: David Rogers/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

The truth shall set you free. As a coach I have thought a lot about the Wales-England game in the last round of the Six Nations and in particular, England’s lack of a Plan B. In itself, Plan B is a bit of an untidy phrase. Like an “in case of emergency, smash glass” kind of plan. That wasn’t what England lacked. It wasn’t an emergency when the tactics needed to change, just a need to adjust their bearings and find space and opportunity somewhere else to regain the momentum. Find the scruff of the neck and give it a tug. They might have done that and Wales might have countered that too – the result may have not differed even if changes had been made.

But the shape and style in the tactics Eddie Jones’s men employed stayed on its original course. Why? I have a theory but let’s exclude some others first.

No 1 The team didn’t haven’t the technical quality to do something different. Not a chance. They are gifted and able throughout the team. No conversations to be had on a skill level.

No 2 They didn’t change it up because they couldn’t change it up. But the munitions were there.

No 3 Jones had formulated a plan based on the shortcomings of his team. The coaches instructed the team to play a certain way, come rain, shine or impending doom. It happens. The door isn’t opening, there is just a push-harder mentality.

But I don’t buy that either. Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell were not kicking because they can’t pass or evade defenders. Crossfield kicks were not struck because they couldn’t make a pass followed by an offload or side step.

Yes, you could see that at the start of the Ireland-England match there had been some pre-planning around the first lineout and few phases of possession but they were to surprise the Irish not constrict the English. I don’t believe this England team are instructed so rigidly that they cannot change their plans.

No 4 Lack of effort. I’ll keep this answer very short. The team look energetic and committed. They are working as hard as they can. That is not the issue.

My view is the reason why the changes on the field didn’t happen is down to the team not taking what they subconsciously think of as risks.

I’m sure all the team can think for themselves but they won’t act on those instincts if they don’t feel safe enough to. Think back to the 2003 World Cup final, extra time and the Jonny Wilkinson drop goal for an example of a team that did.

When you get to moments like that when the team all feel psychologically safe, then those players will actually be seeking those moments where they can effect change. They will step up to the challenge because they know they are good enough to do that and the environment they are in will 100% support it. My gut feeling with this current England team in the same position as the one captained by Martin Johnson is the this side would keep recycling the ball and wait for an opposition error. They might get that, but the risk of a winning drop goal wouldn’t be taken.

England’s Manu Tuilagi celebrates as Henry Slade scores England’s third try in opening-weekend victory over Ireland. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

If there is total trust in the team and management then people take risks and make changes. They develop a gut sense to know when you can really make a big call or make a change. In fact if they had been in that mindset some of the team would have actively sought out those moments in Cardiff.

All of that comes from taking the pressure and stress off the players and management by having a culture that really promotes bolstering the individual and team’s confidence to allow them to really go for those moments. Players feel safe and supported. Rock-solid skills and practices that have been honed and understood underpin all of that but so does the knowledge that it’s actually OK to take those moments. It is about not focusing on critique or the pressure but on excitement and purpose and shared beliefs. Don’t overdo the analysis so much that when push comes to shove, the push gets harder not smarter.

I don’t think England are in need of any more players or more resources and they don’t need a new coach or backroom staff. The way the game’s laws are officiated at the moment does not help free thinking, but to become a truly great team the players and staff need to be taken to great depths of learning and empowerment. Loosen up a little. Coach less on the field, do less for the team off it and be vocal consistently that it’s OK to take risks. It’s OK to seek another way. The team has personnel that can really inspire those around them to do that. Jones has already adapted in his role as England head coach. Now he and his men need to adapt a little more to really get the best from the group. The players need to be allowed some real freedom to set them free.

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