Many words will have cut Eddie Jones deep following England’s hopeless opening Calcutta Cup salvo but those of former sparring partner Sir Clive Woodward will have been hardest to swallow.
“The worst I have ever seen England play by some margin given what was at stake”, was the razor-sharp critique of the former Red Rose coach who occasionally reminds rugby’s audience he won the World Cup once.
In his role as omnipotent media pundit Woodward hasn’t been shy of taking the odd pot shot at the current incumbent but, on the whole, his Daily Mail column is reasoned, rational and fair. Balanced even, in a world largely lacking that most precious of commodities. On the evidence of last weekend’s no show at Twickenham, where England gave their fans precisely nothing to cheer about, Woodward was bang on the money.
Hard as it is to believe, it really is only 15 months since England produced the greatest performance in the nation’s history to dump defending champions New Zealand out of the World Cup.
And it is back to the starting XV from that famous 19-7 semi-final win in Yokohama England’s under-fire coach has largely returned with only Jamie George (bench), Manu Tuilagi (injured) and Sam Underhill (injured) not named in his line-up to play Italy at Twickenham this Saturday.
It is perhaps notable for a man who likes to parrot the great American showman PT Barnam’s line that “comfort is the enemy of progress” Jones has opted to pick his favourite suit from the peg.
The Australian has returned to what he knows is a winning formula.
A key ingredient in that formula, and much of his early success with England, which Jones moved unsuccessfully away from against Scotland, is a playmaking pairing of George Ford and Owen Farrell at 10 and 12.
Farrell, so comprehensively outplayed by Finn Russell to make all pre-match talk of a British & Irish Lions selection play-off nonsensical, has a banker’s level of credit with Jones. But even the England captain’s most trusted of allies will have been shocked by the lack of tactical and spatial awareness displayed by the 89-cap linchpin. Even worse, was his apparent lack of ambition.
England did not make a single line-break and kicked away possession with breathless inefficiency against Scotland and for that, their captain and playmaker must take responsibility.
He has a shot at redemption at inside centre on Saturday, with Ollie Lawrence jettisoned from the matchday 23 after receiving the sum total of one pass on Saturday. His time will come again, no doubt.
What will be of serious concern to Jones, even more than Woodward’s laser-guided assessment, is that his team lacked what former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher used to term “dog f**k”.
Jones took his share of post-match medicine, although suggesting England were robbed of the chance to demonstrate their tactics by the absence of possession bordered on silly.
What will be of serious concern to Jones, even more than Woodward’s laser-guided assessment, is that his team lacked what former England cricket coach Duncan Fletcher used to term “dog f**k”. England, even in Farrell’s snarling image, have lacked edge for a while and as one of international rugby’s few controllable factors that, perhaps all else, is unforgivable.
In different ways Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola will provide Fletcher’s favoured canine ingredient. England’s two first-choice props return to add ballast, ball-carrying and bloody mindedness to a team looking to revert to basics.
Farrell, with the play-making responsibility now shared with the naturally more instinctive Ford, must show he retains capacity to play with more than one dimension against an Italy team Sam Warburton declared unfit for purpose after their latest round one loss to France.
England’s pack, with Sinckler and Vunipola restored to the front row after suspension and injury, alongside the promoted Luke Cowan-Dickie, must show enough teeth to make Fletcher smile while Billy Vunipola is running out of chances to prove his fitness hasn’t gone south along with Saracens’ league position. If one player’s fall from form epitomises England’s own even more than their captains it is the younger of the Vunipola boys.
On the evidence of England’s recent showings they are in danger of being underused in precisely the same manner Jeremy Guscott, Rory Underwood and Stuart Barnes were on Geoff Cooke’s watch of the late 1980s and early 90s.
Sam Peters feels Slade, Daly and May are being underutilised
As for the rest of England’s team, they must demand the ball.
Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Jonny May have all, at various times, shown a tendency towards being world-class. But on the evidence of England’s recent showings they are in danger of being underused in precisely the same manner Jeremy Guscott, Rory Underwood and Stuart Barnes were on Geoff Cooke’s watch of the late 1980s and early 90s.
All four must demand a more expansive game-plan from the notoriously stubborn Jones, even if they risk his wrath.
The signs are promising. Mistakes have been admitted and selection howlers rectified. While England’s players appear to be ticking this week. In many ways it’s a shame they only face Italy on Saturday. A stronger opposition would provide more opportunity for answers.
But one thing is for sure, come 4pm on Saturday it must be Italy licking deeply inflicted wounds after a comprehensive beating. If not, in another 15 months, it’s impossible to see Jones still in charge of England.
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