Lions, England and an unsatisfactory Six Nations

To rest or not to rest, that is the question. Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at having so many Lions and a club system that just wants their players to play. England are trying to pick over the bones of a lacklustre Six Nations campaign. And whilst some very persuasive data is being put forward in terms of weeks rested and minutes played, certainly data than should be considered, I worry that we might throw England’s Six Nations baby out with the fatigued bath water.

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What the data appears to show us is that certain England players have been overused: Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Anthony Watson, Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, I’d put them all in to the ‘over extended’ bracket. Their return so soon after being front line players for the Lions, plus the amount they are used by their clubs this season, raises eyebrows. We will come back to them later but let’s say, according to the data, they are the ones most fatigued.

What of other England Lions? Despite him playing more Lions rugby than any other Englishman, I wouldn’t put Elliot Daly into the ‘tired’ category. He had a lay off due to injury for 6 weeks before he got involved in England’s Six Nations, (surely enough time to rest up) and by many people’s accounts, he played well in the Six Nations matches he appeared in.

Jack Nowell and Ben Te’o have also had long injury layoffs this season: Nowell spent two months out with a cheek fracture, Te’o didn’t train between mid October and the end of January because of an ankle injury. But neither Nowell or Te’o made the sort of impact they would have wanted when they played in the Six Nations; certainly, nothing like Daly. Te’o especially looked pretty disinterested against Ireland. They were both on the Lions Tour but didn’t show form in the Six Nations. Is this fatigue despite their enforced layoffs?

Let’s look at someone like Danny Care. After Youngs limped out of the Championship, he was pretty crucial to the way England played. He wasn’t a Lions Tourist but went to Argentina last summer. He’s been playing some excellent rugby in the Aviva Prem; in a misfiring Harlequins side, he always seemed to make them look better. He brought something late on against Ireland but overall, we didn’t see much of that against Wales, Scotland or France. Wigglesworth was preferred to him in that final game. Is that down to fatigue? If not, what?

The form of Sam Simmonds is also puzzling. Not a Lion, sizzling hot form in England’s top flight, and indeed eye-catching against Italy in week one, Simmonds looked completely out of sorts against Ireland. I’ve watched his performance quite closely. He wasn’t really utilised like I thought he would be against Ireland, but he looked tired. But he can’t be, can he?

George Ford was dropped for the Ireland match. Seemingly the better option in the coaches’ view was the fatigued Farrell at 10. Again, not a Lion, Ford was scintillating in Argentina last summer, and in fine form in the Autumn internationals. He hasn’t shown that many signs of tiredness in the Prem. Why did Ford not play well in the Six Nations?

So if we can agree that Care and Ford and Simmonds didn’t play well, but aren’t as fatigued as that Lions group, is it possible that other players, even those who have played a lot of rugby, also, didn’t hit form? Is this because the plan was wrong? A lot was made of the breakdown, and quick ball would of course allow that trio to flourish. Is this a form/tactics issue and not a fatigue one?

Let’s return to that Lions quintet who we agreed must be shattered. There are some questions here though, aren’t there? When did they start showing signs of fatigue? The performances against Wales, Scotland, France and Ireland seemed quite similarly lacking to me. So when did this fatigue appear to the coaching set up? Maybe they didn’t see it. No one in Eddie Jones’ management team has, in fairness, mentioned it. Jones, in fact, referred to a much improved effort against the Irish (surely effort improving would indicate the opposite to fatigue?). If fatigue was a factor, you’d think the coaches would be able to see it, what with all the tabs they keep on players. And if they did, surely they’d know to bench those players. If they were tired against Wales, Scotland and France, why continue to persevere with them against Ireland a week later? Maro Itoje hasn’t forced himself on an England game for a while. Not like we know he can. Surely with the amount of very good locks at their disposal, playing a flagging Itoje is an unnecessary risk?

Perhaps the players should have said something? “Listen boss, I’m just not feeling 100%.” They know their bodies don’t they? Or is it too much to expect top level players to be this honest when all that pride is at stake? How these players perform in the remaining games of the Aviva Premiership will be interesting. Saracens, who employ Itoje, Vunipola, Farrell and George surely would be advised to think about not playing them very much.

Also questionable is the amount of work Jones asks England to get through in games and in training. A notoriously hard task master, the stats regarding the amount of passes, runs and tackles etc has, unsurprisingly, gone up over the past 24 months. The table below (courtesy of the brilliant Russ Petty) shows how some averages have increased significantly since 2016. So with a listless core membership of his squad, off the back of a Lions tour and club set up that he knows has asked a lot of his players, Jones is attempting to play a high work rate game plan. Why? He knows how much rugby they’ve been playing. Why attempt to push them in this direction? It was only going to end short. Or has Jones completely over looked this rather obvious fatigue issue?

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I think there is a better balance to be struck. The Irish model is, for me, advantageous. But England didn’t go into this Six Nations unaware of how much rugby their players had played. They watched the same performances we all did. There were chances to change things. This Lions fatigue hasn’t just suddenly snuck up on everyone.

This article has a large amount of questions in it. If England are to really progress, I think they all need addressing.

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