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So what happened out there this weekend? Well, the short version is: Ireland beat Scotland comfortably. England lost to France, thereby handing Ireland the title with a week to spare. And Wales thrashed Italy.
I know what you’re thinking … England lost to France? How could this happen? What’s happened to Eddie Jones’ Invincibles? What happened to Ford and Farrell’s telepathic partnership? Are England now rubbish? Should they, in fact, be replaced by Georgia?
Calm down everyone. Keep it together, for crying out loud. If you’ve been reading the normal ‘mainstream’ media (I hate that term, but it seems applicable here) then it would appear all is lost for the men in white. They might as well give up now. Just what is the point anymore?
Well here at Rugby4Cast we (at least try to) take a slightly more long term view. So if you’re English and after a few glimmers of hope, or perhaps just a more realistic, less hyperbolic view of rugby in general, then read on (and then like, follow, share of course).
But firstly, how did our computer do? Not too badly, it would seem. England let us down again unfortunately, but the match was forecast to be tight, and it was, so that is not too concerning. Generally, our score predictions were actually pretty tight this weekend, which is encouraging.
So what does this mean? Well, our model works by looking at historical scoring patterns in matches (both generally and specifically in head to heads), the current rankings and location to work out an expected score for both sides. More accurately speaking, this means each predicted score is actually a metric to describe the relative historical strength of the two teams, based on their performances over previous years. However, we think it is more fun to think of them as predictions. At the very least, it certainly serves to provoke the trolls lurking on Twitter.
Firstly, let’s not make any bones about it, England were not that good. However, without getting into the nitty gritty detail of why they’ve lost the past two games (this isn’t our style – we try to focus on the big, long term picture – if you want some interesting articles on ruck by ruck analysis and how team tactics are played out, then see The 1014), we don’t think is the end of the world for English rugby.
England have had a few near misses in their fantastic run under Eddie Jones (for example Wales and France in last years Six Nations, Argentina in the summer and Wales in this years Six Nations) so the signs have been there, and this is perhaps just a slight normaliser in the big picture of England’s build to the World Cup 2019. Eddie Jones’ initial success was unsustainable and the fact that they won so many games perhaps gave a false sense of security regarding England’s prospects in each match; with supporters forgetting that they have almost lost a few games along the way.
In much the same way that Scotland were unfairly hyped up before the tournament began, England have also perhaps had unfair expectation laid upon them. Although France are not very good at the moment, Paris is still a hard place to travel, and only the All Blacks have won convincingly there in the past few years. To think that England travelling to Paris were guaranteed a victory was probably not true: the French haven’t lost many Six Nations matches there, and rarely by much.
But England are not now a bad team in need of major changes. They are still 24 from 27 under Eddie Jones – a win percentage of 89% – and up until Monday, the second best team in the world. Indeed, they can regain this accolade should they beat Ireland in Twickenham on Saturday.
Perhaps then, this is the crux of the matter. Eddie Jones and England have been talking themselves up as challenging New Zealand for the number one spot in the rankings, but these games have perhaps shown how far off that marker they are.
However, Rome was not built in a day, and this is not yet the full blown crisis that is being reported. England have Ireland this weekend, at home in Twickenham. We still have them as favourites for this match, although the margin has narrowed after the previous two results (now around 6 points, down from 11). Win against Ireland and they can start to put these losses behind them. Then they have a summer tour to South Africa – by no means easy, but certainly winnable – before their matches against Australia and New Zealand in the Autumn. Plenty of time to build some results against top opposition, and allow the media to get the hype train going again pre-World Cup.
France have had a tough press in recent times, and it is hard to decide whether it is justified or not. Sure, they haven’t won many games (just two now from the last ten), but then they have been against some tough opposition, and they haven’t lost by much. However, they also drew with Japan at home, which despite Japan’s improvement in recent years is not something the French will have been pleased about.
But in this years Six Nations, although they have perhaps not been playing attractive rugby, they have been extremely competitive. Their two losses, against Ireland and Scotland, were close – just a last minute miracle dropped goal from Sexton saving the Irish, and French ill-discipline helping the Scots – and had they won those games, it would have been a French Grand Slam on the cards next week.
Ifs and buts, I can hear you all say. And yes, you’re absolutely right. But this is not to say that the French should feel hard done by, merely to show how close the Six Nations is, with all sides (bar Italy) now capable of beating each other. Finishing fifth is by no means a sign that a team has played badly, just perhaps that some fine margins may not have gone your way.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at Wales in last year’s Six Nations. They finished fifth and were roundly lampooned by the press. However, they were within a hairs breadth of beating both England and France, in both games a last minute try saving the opposition and winning the game. Had those games finished at 78 minutes and gone Wales’ way, they would have won four games – more than anyone else – and would’ve won the tournament … but for bonus points. England under this situation would’ve collected four and topped the table with three wins. What a debut for bonus point that would have been! However, under all previous tournament, Wales would’ve won. Fine margins.