For England, defeat by Scotland continued a worrying trend.
Eddie Jones’ side, at their best, are a well-oiled machine, dominating the set-piece and the contact area, squeezing their opponents with a disciplined kicking game, and ruthlessly taking their chances to score.
But when these areas don’t function – or when the opposition don’t let these areas function – the wheels can fall off.
England finished 2020 with two trophies: a fine achievement. However, the Six Nations title came via points difference, and the Autumn Nations Cup after extra time against a depleted France.
The Calcutta Cup crushing suggests those trophy wins have papered over the cracks.
England have not won a Grand Slam since 2016, Jones’ first tournament as their head coach.
During that period, according to former scrum-half Danny Care on the latest Rugby Union Weekly podcast, a lot of focus in training was on an unstructured game. But fast forward five years, and England have never looked so prescriptive.
“The first thought is to kick,” says Care. “They have a kick-first mentality. That is the thing I would like to see change. I would like to see them have a “heads-up” mentality.”
Co-host Ugo Monye adds: “There is something conservative about England’s attack. In 2020, we got away with a kick-pressure game and forcing errors, executing and squeezing teams.
“But when teams physically match you, what is your attack saying?”
Jones argues his team don’t set out to play in a particular way, and that their approach is dependent on a number of factors, such as the weather conditions and the referee.
But where is England’s ability to chase a game? Too often, they look bereft of ideas when behind on the scoreboard.
Is Farrell overwhelmed with current role?
Owen Farrell is the beating heart of the England team. But as playmaker, goal-kicker and captain, is he being overwhelmed? And is he getting enough support when the chips are down?
“Their leaders can step up more,” says Care.
“Whenever England get put under pressure, and things aren’t quite going to plan, I struggle to see where their leaders are really taking a grip of the game.”
Playing Farrell at 10 as part of a sturdy midfield has often been Jones’ preference, but the England captain currently appears more comfortable alongside the guile and experience of George Ford.
Furthermore, whether England should have a captain in the forwards, closer to the breakdown and the set-piece, continues to be a live debate. Farrell will provide and demand high standards regardless of his role.
Tuilagi absence felt in midfield
England did not make a single clean line-break against Scotland, the first time this has happened in the Six Nations in a whopping eight years, with Ollie Lawrence and Anthony Watson reduced to spectator status at Twickenham.
A lot of this was down to Scotland, with their disciplined and intense defence constantly throwing England out of shape.
But, once more, the conversation turns to the absence of Manu Tuilagi, with the Sale man’s injury depriving England of both a dynamic ball-carrying and a decoy option.
England have to find a way to play without Tuilagi. It is no coincidence that the best performances under Jones – since the winning tour of Australia in 2016 – have come with Tuilagi in the midfield.
‘England will beat Italy whoever plays’
Saturday’s match with Italy is something of a lose-lose situation for England, given the travails of the Azzurri.
But it nonetheless provides Jones with a number of opportunities; he can continue to put faith in Lawrence in the hope he will actually get some ball, he can blood players such as young scrum-half Harry Randall, while he can also get some more rugby into some of his rustier squad members before the tougher challenges to come.
“England are going to get judged not on the result against Italy, but on the performance,” warns Monye.
“England will beat Italy whoever plays this weekend,” adds Care.
“But I would love to see Harry Randall get a shot at playing for England. It is the perfect chance for him to play and bring an unbelievable amount of tempo to this England squad.”
Max Malins – bang in form for Bristol and a bright light off the bench for England in the autumn – is also pushing for a first Test start.
Jones’ side have rallied before
England lost their Six Nations opener in 2020, and rallied to win the title nine months later. A repeat of that – including victory against France at Twickenham – would be an impressive response to this setback.
But a further defeat or two will raise more questions about the progression Jones and the players are making after the highs of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Shortly after that tournament, Jones proclaimed England wanted to be “the greatest team the world has ever seen”.
This crop of players is without doubt the strongest England has had in nearly 20 years, while Jones is a coach with rare experience and pedigree.
It is therefore reasonable for England supporters to hold them to the same lofty standards they have set themselves.