England’s start to the Six Nations has been underwhelming to say the least. An opening day defeat to Scotland caught them off guard and ended any hopes of a first Grand Slam in five years, while the win over Italy wasn’t anything to write home about. As the first weekend off arrives at the perfect time, Eddie Jones will use this time to take stock of what his team have achieved so far, and how they can improve across the remainder of the tournament.
This week, however, the head coach tried to find reasons why his side have underperformed in their opening two games. Intriguingly, he turned to the empty stands as a potential reason for the players’ lack of intensity.
“The arousal level is the thing we are looking at the most,” Jones said in response to a question about England’s start.
“Games have tended to be less aggressive generally in rugby and I think it has been the same in football.
“There’s a bit of research that shows the arousal level of players has dropped and therefore the type of play or the type of behaviour has been less aggressive. In our sport that is a particularly important area so we have to investigate that.”
It isn’t just England, a side who rely on high-aggression and feed off their fans, who have been off the pace this year. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side, the Premier League champions who tore teams apart with their gegenpress, lie sixth, 16 points off leaders Manchester City. Elsewhere in football, a study into RB Salzburg showed that there has been a 20 per cent reduction in ‘emotional’ incidents without crowds in the stadium.
“If you look at our first performance against Scotland, we lacked our normal aggression, we lacked our normal go-at-them game,” Jones continued. “We were a little bit better against Italy but still not where we need to be. If I look at Liverpool, who are an aggressive team, they are really at their best when they are pressing hard and they attack hard, their whole crowd is aggressive. Is that one of the reasons why they have dropped off?”
The issue with Jones’ referral to empty stadiums is that every single team is performing in the same environment. However, he may have a point about England missing their Twickenham backing, as we have seen in the Premier League this season that away wins have been more common this term than last year, with only two home wins from the opening six Six Nations games in 2021.
In terms of individuals, the players’ statistics also suggest that they are missing the crowds this term. For a side full of dedicated talented individuals, something has been palpably missing in 2021, and even when comparing them to other players from teams in the same tournament they are falling well short.
With the stat of ‘dominant tackles’ the easiest way to determine aggression in a side, England have clearly regressed. After the opening two games, only Maro Itoje and Tom Curry are performing anywhere near the levels we saw last season. In fact, four of the top seven players for dominant tackles during the 2020 Six Nations were English, now only Itoje and Curry lie in the top 10.
Meanwhile, Elliot Daly is their highest performer for ball carries but he sits 12th overall and Anthony Watson is the only player to make the top 12 for broken tackles. Both individually and collectively, something is seriously missing from this England side.
Jones’ players must find a way to succeed and reinvigorate themselves without the help of the fans. The intrinsic motivation and intensity that got them to the World Cup final in 2019 could also help them turn around this Six Nations campaign.