England must solve attacking conundrum against South Africa to lay down World Cup marker

England must solve attacking conundrum against South Africa to lay down World Cup marker

England are standing at a World Cup 2023 crossroads of contradiction and conundrum.

Eddie Jones’s men will reach the end of the road in October 2023 as either one or the other — and tomorrow’s Twickenham tussle with South Africa will go a long way to plotting their fate at next year’s global gathering.

The contradiction manifests itself in both last weekend’s bipolar performance to draw with New Zealand, and this week’s conflicting reviews of their 2019 World Cup Final defeat.

The conundrum centres on England’s attacking rhythm — Jones wants his side to confound opponents with a genre-busting offensive repertoire.

But do England boast all the right notes, just not yet in the right order, or are they stuck in the wrong key? Contradiction number one must be considered as England’s 70-minute failure against the All Blacks last weekend, as set against the 10-minute triumph that yielded three stunning tries to scramble the 25-25 draw.

Contradiction number two is revealed as Jonny May’s take on the 2019 final loss to South Africa, that sits in sharp contrast to the bitter memories of Mako Vunipola.

A circumspect May insisted he was put quickly at peace by England’s 32-12 defeat by the Springboks in the World Cup Final in Japan, reckoning Jones’s men left everything on the field.

Jonny May has shrugged off England’s 2019 World Cup final loss, but it’s a different story for Mako Vunipola (Getty Images)
Jonny May has shrugged off England’s 2019 World Cup final loss, but it’s a different story for Mako Vunipola (Getty Images)

A simmering Vunipola still has plenty of irks, however, triggered by the Boks’ green shirt and taken straight back to being put under the yoke in Yokohama.

“I accepted it relatively quickly,” said May, of the 2019 defeat. “It was just a lesson in sport, that that’s how it goes some days. There were no regrets, we were just beaten by a team that was better on the day.”

May might have moved on, but part of Vunipola never truly will.

“That game will probably stay with me for the rest of my life,” said Vunipola. “Not only because of how we lost, but because of how they imposed themselves on us. It felt like, ‘where do we go from here?’ We didn’t fire a shot. Sitting in the changing room afterwards was tough.

“Everyone was just sitting in silence, and that was when you realised we missed an opportunity, and we’re probably not going to get that opportunity again.”

Prop Vunipola says the defeat in Yokohama will stay with him for the rest of his life (Getty Images)
Prop Vunipola says the defeat in Yokohama will stay with him for the rest of his life (Getty Images)

Vunipola knows England still need to exorcise some 2019 demons against the Springboks at Twickenham in their final Autumn Nations Series clash. May was more concerned with England’s contextual curve, in charting World Cup cycle progress.

This time three years ago, Gloucester’s cerebral winger May believes England were further through their World Cup prep. And yet the 32-year-old also curiously thinks England are now better equipped than that 2019 side.

“The way we finished the game against New Zealand, that last 10 minutes, that wasn’t something that the 2019 England could do,” said May. “We’re still very much a team in development, at this time before the last World Cup we were probably further ahead in the journey.

“But it was probably a narrower gameplan, whereas it’s a broader gameplan we’re trying to get to now, and to have a variety of ways to play, that’s harder to achieve.

“We want all the traditional values to our attacking game, but we also want the smartness to understand the story, the theme of the game.

“The top 10 teams in the world at the moment are all very, very close, and it’s going to take a special team to break out of that and win the World Cup, and a team that can play in a variety of ways. We’re trying to take on a fair bit, but that’s what we need to do to try to be the best team in the world.”

Jones would relish opponents struggling to decipher his side’s attacking riddle, but England can ill-afford to become lost in the machine of their own enigma

England terrorised New Zealand, with Will Stewart crossing twice and Freddie Steward also racing home in an eight-minute closing salvo last weekend.

The trouble is, before the terrorising, England were little more than terrible against the All Blacks. The South African challenge leaves precious little point to expansive blueprints without punching holes through the middle.

“These guys are going to come out the blocks, straight through the front door,” said England boss Jones. “We’re going to have to beat that, to fight and fight and fight.”

Jones would relish opponents struggling to decipher his side’s attacking riddle, but England can ill-afford to become lost in the machine of their own enigma. Time to solve the conundrum and kick-start the World Cup countdown.