If you were looking for a word to sum up how Eddie Jones and England fans are feeling about the national side’s autumn so far, you could be reaching if you opted for anything more positive than ‘content’.
Against South Africa, England got a result without a performance. There were great moments of resiliency and an impressive powerplay in the 20 minutes after half time, but it was a game where luck and Springbok deficiencies, as much as anything else, handed the game to England. That’s fine, England hadn’t played a game since their victory over the Springboks in Cape Town during the summer, whilst South Africa had competed in The Rugby Championship and had far fewer excuses for rust and errors than England did.
Then came the formidable challenge of the All Blacks, which proved to be almost the polar opposite of the win against South Africa, with England providing an impressive performance but without the steely edge required at the end of both halves to secure a win. There were flashes of brilliance from a side bereft of many key starters and for all the agony of the tight loss, in review and retrospect it should provide those players involved with a belief that they can match anyone in the world.
Neither result seemed to fill fans with great enthusiasm, but it showed, at the least, that England haven’t fallen far from that top tier of teams in international rugby, despite strong indications to the contrary earlier in 2018.
Ironically, England’s biggest win of the autumn so far, a 35-15 victory over Japan, probably brought the least celebration, with the Cherry Blossoms showing all the guile and ingenuity in the first half that they did against the Springboks in 2015, and England fans would have been nervous of another giant killing when Japan took a 15-10 lead into the second half.
Enter, Captain Farrell.
The arrival of the playmaker in the second half brought a clear improvement in the cohesiveness of the side, both offensively and defensively, and England were able to finish strongly at Twickenham, scoring 25 unanswered points.
Not bad, but not particularly good, either, and that’s why there is now such importance on England ending the autumn on a real high note against Australia, with games running out before the beginning of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
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Watch: Eddie Jones and George Ford dissect England’s performance against Japan.
England are on a five-match win streak against the Wallabies, retaining the Cook Cup for an extended period after their last loss to Australia, the result which denied them passage to the quarter-finals at the 2015 RWC. In fact, England have won nine of the last 11 games in this historic rivalry, and if there is a psychological advantage in the contest, it belongs to the side hosting at Twickenham on Saturday.
That advantage, no matter how great or small it may be, is not something England will be keen to relinquish anytime soon, especially as they seek to exorcise their RWC ghosts next year.
If Jones can get his side to combine the positive elements of the matches against South Africa and New Zealand, bringing together resiliency with overall performance, and extend that winning streak over Australia to six games, things will be looking much rosier for England heading into 2019.
Given Australia’s performances over the last couple of weeks, it’s a victory which England should be expected to notch up.
If the defining word of England’s autumn so far is ‘content’, then the most suitable for the Wallabies and Michael Cheika would ‘underachievement’.
Australia fell to a 9-6 loss to Wales in the opening match of their tour, which ended a 13-match win streak against Wales that had lasted for just shy of 10 years, and then backed that it up with a far from convincing 26-7 victory over Italy. Nevertheless, it will have provided Cheika’s men with some much-needed momentum going into the clash at Twickenham.
There are certainly positives for Australia to take from that contest with Italy, not least so the success Samu Kerevi – whose RugbyPass Index score rose to 81 as a result – had against the Italian midfield, which is the one area where England felt defensively fragile against both South Africa and New Zealand. The quartet of Damian de Allende, Jesse Kriel, Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue all caused England problems in the channel between 12 and 13 and it’s something Kerevi is more than capable of doing, too, especially outside of the effervescent talents of Kurtley Beale.
During that period, Ben Te’o has seen his RPI dip to 56 – the lowest mark in the England squad – and Henry Slade’s has fallen to 80, from a mark of 84 with Exeter before the international window.
For all the successes that England have had under Jones, the recent low times, the injuries and the enviable player pool he has at his disposal, the in-flux nature of the side’s midfield might be the biggest indictment of his tenure. Less than 12 months out from a RWC, it seems almost impossible to predict, barring injury, what England’s starting 12 and 13 combination will be at the tournament.
You simply cannot say the same about other genuine contenders.
If everyone is fit, Ireland will probably have Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the box-seat, South Africa will likely have the aforementioned de Allende and Kriel and then New Zealand look at least set with Goodhue at 13, with a little more uncertainty at 12 given Sonny Bill Williams’ injury problems.
Beale and Kerevi are a fine combination for the Wallabies, Huw Jones has cemented himself in for Scotland and Jonathan Davies has done likewise for Wales, with Hadleigh Parkes looking every bit the suitable complement inside him.
As for England, there has been constant change and a constant lack of cohesion since the successes of Farrell and Jonathan Joseph in Jones’ first season in charge. With Farrell now seemingly the favoured 10, an understandable call given that it is his best position, at least half of that combination may be off the board come the RWC, whilst Joseph continues his rehabilitation from injury and should be available for the upcoming Six Nations.
It’s difficult to underestimate how much England have missed Joseph. He grabbed the spotlight in 2016 for the audacious attacking ability he brought to a side enjoying a plethora of front-foot ball, but it was the quiet, understated defensive excellence he offered that really helped shape England into a world beater that year.
The 13 channel is as difficult an area of the rugby pitch to defend as there is, with players having to be exceptionally mobile, make quick and smart decisions and often make and complete one-on-one tackles on players that, if unsuccessful, could leave your full-back as the last defender capable of stopping the attacking movement.
Joseph excels in all of those facets and whilst Slade, Te’o and Jack Nowell have all brought plenty of positive attributes to the role, none have been able to match that defensive security that Joseph has provided.
Jones has now said that he sees Manu Tuilagi as a 13, rather than a 12, so that is potentially another option to add to the mix should he be able to stay fit, but anyone, possibly including Jones, who tell you they know what England’s midfield will look like at the RWC is lying. Both positions seem to be up for grabs now that Farrell has been moved inside to 10 and time is running out to find the right combination and build a decent level of cohesion before the side jets off to Japan next year.
In addition to meeting and overcoming the challenge of Australia this weekend, finding out more answers about his midfield will probably be very close to the top of Jones’ wishlist. Given that the next fixture in England’s calendar is a trip to Dublin to take on a surging Ireland side in the Six Nations, Jones and his side need a fillip going into what will be a testing 2019.
A performance, a result and midfield answers would be the perfect early Christmas present for England on Saturday.
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