England began their Six Nations campaign with their worst professional performance at Twickenham and ended it in Dublin on Saturday with a contribution every bit as underwhelming.
Eddie Jones, who last week appeared to be supping in the last-chance saloon when accusing his critics of dripping “rat poison” in his players ears, insisted after losing to a hitherto mediocre Ireland side that his team had finished the tournament in better shape than they’d started it.
Palpably, he was wrong. England started and ended it dreadfully.
England’s capitulation in Dublin, where they lost almost every physical confrontation of note, was akin to their unexpected and historic home loss to Scotland in their disastrous tournament opener.
Both times they shipped penalties like confetti, both times their three-quarters were rudderless as their pack conceded physical dominance almost immediately from kick-off. England conceded 67 penalties in five matches, two tries direct from set-piece in back-to-back games and 11 turnovers against Ireland alone. All the key battlegrounds in Dublin, with the solitary exception of the line-out, were once again lost.
Once again, England’s scrum folded. Once again, the breakdown tussle was ceded. Once again, George Ford and Owen Farrell failed to fire. England finished the Six Nations precisely where they’d started it: with an utterly second-rate performance which made a mockery of their pre-match tag as favourites.
George Ford’s standing amongst his peers will have been terminally damaged by the scale of Eddie Jones’ second-half snub
The extraordinary revelation that England chose to play 25 minutes with scrum-half Dan Robson at stand-off when they could have replaced concussed Farrell with the already-substituted Ford must go down as one the most brutal coaching snubs of recent times. Admittedly, Ford has been unimpressive during the tournament and, at the age of 28 and with 77 England caps to his name, it is now impossible to imagine him featuring again while Jones is in charge. His standing amongst his peers will have been terminally damaged by the scale of Jones’s second-half rebuff. Remember Robson has hardly been able to get a game under Jones in his regular berth, let alone at 10.
But while the numbers and the reshuffling tell some of the story, there is another less tangible factor at play. One that can be traced back to the time Saracens’ salary cap scandal engulfed the once-proud North London club and all those associated with it.
Since the day the story broke – January 23rd 2020 – England have slipped from being a team fresh from reaching the World Cup final to a disenfranchised rabble lacking leadership, defensive cohesion and tactical nous.
From knocking New Zealand out in the semi-final with perhaps their greatest all-court performance of the professional age, the comedown for the national team and its totemic former champion club has been dramatic.
Saracens’ Premiership defenestration has led to a catastrophic puncturing of self-belief amongst its core England contingent. Their key performers are now every bit as short of self-assurance as they are game time. Jones said last week he’d never seen confidence walk into a room. He needs to start finding new ways to capture it.
Mainstays of the British & Irish Lions starting XV such as Jamie George, both Vunipola brothers, Elliot Daly and Farrell appear shadows of the players they once were while Maro Itoje is nowhere near the marauding force he had been for years.
On the evidence of this tournament, there is no way Warren Gatland could pick either of the Vunipola brothers in his Lions squad, let alone the Test XV
Farrell has been an ineffective captain all tournament while Daly’s decline has been all too evident. The former Wasp had a reasonable game on Saturday as Max Malins’ late replacement at full-back, but this proven world-beater is so badly out of sorts he needs time away from the intense spotlight of international rugby to rediscover himself. He must start by insisting on a return to his preferred number 13 shirt for the rest of his career. His legacy depends on it.
On the evidence of this tournament, there is no way Warren Gatland could pick either of the Vunipola brothers in his Lions squad, let alone the Test XV, with Mako’s scrummaging frailties now terminally exposed while Billy’s footwork has deserted him along with his ability to cross the gain-line. Jones must rid himself of the absurd notion England do not have back-row depth and cast the net around for a number eight capable of offering pace, dynamism and a point of difference. Has anyone watched Exeter Chiefs play recently?
As Saracens languish in the Championship and rumours abounding of release clauses in contracts for key players should the club fail to bounce straight back, the biggest English club project of the professional age is in serious danger of completely imploding.
At the moment it risks taking down the national team as well. Because aside from the stark numbers alone, England and Saracens have lost something even more important: their collective mojo.
After five years in charge, longer than any other major coaching role he’s fulfilled and now lacking the quality stocks provided by the once all-conquering domestic outfit, it’s increasingly unlikely Jones is the man to rediscover it.
England finished the tournament better than they started it? Now that really is rat poison, Eddie.
More stories from Sam Peters
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