Coach heads to Murrayfield on Saturday having lost five of his past seven Six Nations games away from Twickenham
First the good news. The Six Nations has already been jolted spectacularly into life and the reawakening of France rates among the more positive developments in rugby in recent times. Sunday’s latest incident-packed edition of Le Crunch has spectacularly energised the tournament and predicting the destination of this year’s title is now even harder than it was last week.
In theory it could still be England’s year, although that was not an argument gaining much traction on the planes, trains and ferries heading back across the Channel. “Is it because of Brexit?” one French journalist asked after the final whistle in the Stade de France, curious to know whether the visibly sagging Anglo-Saxon body language might be explained by something beyond the rugby pitch.
There is insufficient evidence to support that theory but, equally, this was more than just a case of a team having an off-day. On Sunday only one of the two sides looked happy in their work and, from beginning to end, that was France, not England. While rushing to firm conclusions based on a single game of rugby is rarely wise, the visitors looked about as comfortable as a bunch of GCSE students required to spend a whole evening conversing in fluent French with a roomful of sophisticated Parisians.
If they fail to regain their composure this week, Scotland will definitely fancy their chances. And why not? England have now lost five of their past seven Six Nations games away from Twickenham. They also have an increasingly nasty habit of imploding – and Paris was another spectacular malfunction – on the biggest, most high-pressure occasions, and have collected one grand slam since 2003. Nor have they beaten the Scots in either of their last two championship meetings.
A growing number of these uncomfortable questions are stacking up at the door of their head coach, Eddie Jones. If, say, Ireland or Wales had played as poorly first up under their respective new managers, Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac, it would have been assumed the players and their coaches were not yet singing off the same hymn sheet. Jones does not have that ready excuse available, although his assistants, Matt Proudfoot and Simon Amor, have only recently started work.
No, the issues here would appear to run deeper. Clearly England have some fine individual players and talented athletes and were good enough to reach the World Cup final three months ago. Not for the first time, though, Jones’s sure selectorial touch has apparently deserted him. It is all very well wishing to turn the remarkable Tom Curry into an international No 8 in the long term. Why, though, launch the experiment with minimal preparation against a fired-up French pack at the Stade de France rather than pick from a readily available array of in-form specialist alternatives such as Alex Dombrandt of Harlequins, Sam Simmonds of Exeter or Nathan Hughes of Bristol?
The error looks set to be compounded, with none of the above trio drafted into the squad for Murrayfield. Is it more a case of making clear to everyone inside and outside the camp who is boss? Or stubbornly picking on attitude at the expense of the specific personnel the team need to function properly under pressure? Jones, if so, is guilty of disrespecting both the opposition and the tournament. Use the Six Nations to develop your team, if you must, but do not leave your side needlessly under-clubbed as a result. Advertisement
Blaming a bunch of depressed Saracens is also a red herring – salary cap-related uncertainty did not seem to do Nick Tompkins much harm on his Wales debut in Cardiff. If post-World Cup fatigue is the issue, how come Jonny May looked so sharp? No, the root of the problem appears to be psychological and linked to the all-pervasive influence of Jones himself.
One can almost sense the squad wondering aloud whether Jones is already picking the team with 2023 in mind. If, conversely, the coach is looking no further ahead than 2021 when his current contract runs out, what does that mean for those either picked or rejected now? Proven Test Lions such as Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly already look distracted; the longer Jones’s future beyond next year remains unresolved, the greater danger there is of England falling between the cracks.
It might also help if Jones, having just turned 60, were to re-learn the art of humility in addition to picking up his senior citizen travel card. Telling the opposition how brutally tough you are going to be is, at best, boorish willy-waving. Whatever happened to being hard and fair, respectful and innovative?
Take out the Vunipola brothers and Manu Tuilagi, whose latest groin problem has to be seen as a potentially major concern given his injury history, and England are far less reliably thunderous. Their carrying stats from Paris were not good enough and, while Mako Vunipola will presumably return, their midfield options are now shrinking. Farrell and Jonathan Joseph would be the most experienced starting combo but Ollie Devoto must be close to starting. Scotland’s loose forwards, either way, will be licking their lips at the possibility of another sweet Murrayfield mugging.