With England riding off into the sunset with a convincing win over Australia, we take a look at Eddie Jones’ first year in charge of the national team and review the positives and the negatives across 2016.
Well, we have to open up with England’s unbeaten calendar year under Jones: 13 wins from 13 and every major team in the world defeated with the exception of New Zealand. It’s the kind of consistency that most teams can only dream of, but also the level of performance required to win you major trophies.
To win a World Cup, Rugby Championship or Six Nations Grand Slam you’re looking at five or six victories against the best in the world home and away and that is exactly what Eddie Jones has delivered since he took over in January.
Whilst some fans will point at the recent form of teams like Australia and South Africa, the old adage ‘you can only play what is in front of you’ still suffices. After New Zealand these teams were still regarded as the best the rugby world had to offer, although many will be arguing for Ireland’s inclusion after being one of only four teams since 2012 to have stopped the All Blacks juggernaut.
Yet the men in white have got past all these teams quite convincingly and although they are yet to put together the ’80 minute performance’ that they strive for, they now have enough in their attacking and defensive armoury to suggest the country’s finest could be competitive with the world’s best team.
Along the way Jones has unearthed diamonds in the rough in Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler, Jack Clifford and Nathan Hughes, but also seen Maro Itoje emerge as one of the game’s finest young talents.
The Australian has also revitalised the careers of Courtney Lawes, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood, with Lancaster’s lieutenants all taking their games to new levels not seen previously.
Moreover, the England coaches are starting to see a handful of genuinely world class players emerge. Mako Vunipola, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson are there or close.
Eddie Jones’ main strength appears to be the meticulous detail he goes into ensuring all his players know their roles on the field and how they fit into the bigger picture. Players 1 to 23 know they are all pivotal to the team’s chances of winning and the players are buying in to this new way forward. It’s something that works so well given the inherent nature of English rugby.
Finally, Jones has helped his adopted country to make history again and again. A first Grand Slam in thirteen years, a first series win in Australia and a first win over South Africa in almost a decade have been just some of the accolades picked up and records broken along the way.
Eddie Jones recently admitted he had made some mistakes in selection, and one could pinpoint a few players he might be referring to.
Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison were both handed opportunities in the first and third test of the summer tour to Australia, but their being hauled off the pitch at or before half time showed the more ruthless side to Jones’ decisions; he has no time or room for sentiment.
England will be pleased that their attacking efficiency seems to be improving. England scored 13 tries in the Six Nations (2.6 a match), 9 tries in three games on the summer tour to Australia (3 a match – ignoring the one off game against Wales in May), and 19 tries in four games during the autumn internationals (4.75 a match). Even if you take out the Fiji game with its nine tries England still scored 3.33 tries a match.
However, in defence it’s a somewhat different story. In the Six Nations England conceded only 4 tries across 5 games (0.8 tries a game), 10 tries during the summer tour (3.33 a game) and 9 tries during the AIs (2.25 a game). It does seem as if there is a switching in focus from England from stopping teams from scoring at all costs to being able to outscore their opponents.
Even so, to be as clinical as the All Blacks England must be proficient in both areas. New Zealand conceded only 5 tries across 6 games in the Rugby Championship (0.83 tries a match) this year, and scored an astonishing 38 tries in the tournament as well (6.3 a game).
In selection, there are still a number of issues for Jones to consider sooner rather than later. Owen Farrell continues to be selected as a second five-eighth at 12 and is consistent but not always comfortable there. George Ford has looked more relaxed with a player like Ben Te’o on his shoulder. Could the Worcester man or a returning Manu Tuilagi take over shortly? Will Farrell be moved back to fly-half and Ford dropped to the bench?
Moreover, James Haskell and Tom Wood have both acted as ‘6.5s’ in Jones’ teams, working very well and in tandem with Chris Robshaw who has been a revelation at blindside, but is either the long term option for the men in white as an openside? Someone like Jack Clifford or Teimana Harrison may grow into the role eventually, but one must not also ignore the talents of the likes of Matt Kvesic or indeed Sam Underhill.
Finally, will Dylan Hartley continue to lead the team when his spot in the side is no longer guaranteed with a number of talented hookers challenging him for the number two spot?
The first moment that will jump to mind here is Elliot Daly’s ill-advised and frankly bizarre challenge on Argentina’s Leonardo Senatore in the air. Who knows what the Wasps player was thinking, but it ruined an otherwise brilliant autumn campaign for the youngster. However, he will surely recover and go on to push for further recognition in the Six Nations.
England will want to forget the first 20 minutes of the most recent match against Australia where they failed to turn up, but also the first twenty of the first test against the Wallabies in Brisbane. The men in white quickly conceded two very soft tries. Add into that the final 10 minutes against Wales in the Six Nations when England went from 25 – 7 up to finishing the game 25 – 21 and a whisker away from defeat. All these moments were hugely disappointing for both English players and supporters, even if the team continues to find ways to win regardless of the circumstances.
To Sum Up
Overall, England should be immensely proud of all their achievements in just over a year since being so embarrassingly dumped out of their own World Cup. To have been so consistent and impressive so close to the tournament suggest the side has always had the talent, just perhaps not the coherency it needed in planning and preparation.
What’s genuinely exciting for England supporters is how much better they can become, although sadly it will not be next year that the men in white face the All Blacks for the first time since 2014. When they finally get their chance to test themselves against the very best, it will be some game.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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