No hid­ing place for Jones in crunch se­ries

Se­nior fig­ures are weary of the Jones era and will shed few tears when it ends

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - ROBERT KITSON

Eng­land v South Africa Twick­en­ham, 3.0pm Sky Sports Ac­tion

Some­times in­ter­na­tional sport feels less like a game than a game show. Sup­ply the right an­swers un­der pres­sure and you can stay. Get it wrong and you are gone. En­ter­tain be­fore the ad break or get the hell out of town. Twick­en­ham, once the spir­i­tual home of English re­straint, is as ob­sessed these days with in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion as any­where else.

Nor does it help that English rugby union is cur­rently hostage to a crazily spin­ning wheel of for­tune. As re­cently as 10 months ago Ed­die Jones was a world class boss and the fu­ture was shiny bright. And now? The Spring­boks, star­ing into the abyss be­fore Rassie Eras­mus’s in­ter­ven­tion, can­not wait to get stuck into one of the least set­tled red rose packs of mod­ern times.

Not all of this, clearly, can be laid at Jones’s door. Coaches, even ob­ses­sive ones, are not im­mune to freak in­juries or ill luck, as un­der­lined by Manu Tuilagi’s late with­drawal from the bench with a mi­nor groin strain. Given Eng­land have al­ready lost the re­as­sur­ing ar­mour plat­ing of Billy Vu­nipola, Mako Vu­nipola, Court­ney Lawes, Joe Launch­bury and Nathan Hughes, Jones must have run over a black cat.

That said, Eng­land’s sup­port­ers are start­ing to ask ques­tions they would pre­fer not to be con­sid­er­ing with the 2019 World Cup just over the horizon. What hap­pens, re­gard­less of in­juries, if South Africa’s power game en­dures and Eng­land end up well beaten on the open­ing week­end of the Quil­ter au­tumn se­ries? Next up are New Zealand, still the world’s num­ber one ranked side.

An­other loss to the All Blacks and Jones’s Eng­land could be star­ing at seven de­feats in their last eight Tests, with Ja­pan and Aus­tralia to come. The words “fortress” and “Twick­en­ham” have not been seen in the same sen­tence for a while.

Step­ping stone

Is this, ul­ti­mately, rea­son to panic un­duly? As Jones well knows from his days in charge of Ja­pan, rep­u­ta­tions are largely made or shat­tered at World Cups. It re­mains his be­lief that ev­ery­thing else is es­sen­tially a step­ping stone. Maybe, but only if the Rugby Foot­ball Union is still em­ploy­ing him next Septem­ber.

There are those at Twick­en­ham, in­clud­ing some se­nior fig­ures, who are al­ready weary of the Jones era and will shed few tears when it is time to part com­pany.

This was not the an­tic­i­pated legacy when Jones ar­rived but, lat­terly, the head coach has re­sem­bled a frus­trated an­gler for whom the fish have stopped bit­ing. The fi­nal bill for last sum­mer’s los­ing tour in South Africa was ap­par­ently far in ex­cess of the sup­posed bud­get and the ex­pen­sive hir­ing of John Mitchell also prompted in­ter­nal RFU dis­quiet.

No one dis­putes Jones’s ex­per­tise as a turn­around spe­cial­ist but sus­tain­ing that ini­tial suc­cess re­mains a work-on. Take this week’s hir­ing of Will Car­ling as a lead­er­ship men­tor: if it works then fair play but there is more than a whiff of head­line-grab­bing short-ter­mism about it. If Owen Far­rell needs any ad­vice on elite cap­taincy it would be far eas­ier – and cheaper – to call his fa­ther.

Un­less Jones is sav­ing his best un­til last, the RFU also risks in­her­it­ing a gag­gle of globe-trot­ting as­sis­tants, stunt­ing the growth of English-reared coaches aside from Steve Borth­wick and en­dur­ing an­other below-par World Cup. Which is why a pos­i­tive start to­day mat­ters so much. Beat South Africa and stand up to the All Blacks and Jon­estown be­comes a happy-clappy place once again. If, al­ter­na­tively, Eng­land start limply, their new com­bi­na­tions strug­gle and the crowd grows im­pa­tient, it will be harder to pacify those won­der­ing how many clothes the em­peror is ac­tu­ally wear­ing.

In­flated ex­pec­ta­tions

Un­fairly fine mar­gins? In­flated ex­pec­ta­tions at odds with re­al­ity? Pos­si­bly. Jones is hardly the first Eng­land coach to suf­fer from the con­flict­ing in­ter­ests of club and coun­try. But let it be re­mem­bered Eng­land are still the best re­sourced rugby na­tion on the planet. No other na­tion could have spent this past week train­ing in for­eign climes with no ex­pense spared. The play­ers do look im­pres­sively fit but, frankly, so they should. Rather more per­ti­nent, even more so than to­day’s re­sult, is how they col­lec­tively per­form.

What a vin­di­ca­tion of Jones’s meth­ods it would be if they were to skip back from Por­tu­gal, re­pro­duce all those nifty Al­garve train­ing moves in the cooler sur­round­ings of Twick­en­ham and rock the Boks with their quick think­ing, ac­cu­rate ex­e­cu­tion, tac­ti­cal acu­men and de­sire. What if Far­rell dom­i­nates at num­ber 10, Ben Te’o and Henry Slade click from the out­set and the un­fa­mil­iar back­row trio of Brad Shields, Tom Curry and Mark Wil­son out­play their op­po­site num­bers? It would sug­gest Jones still has the Mi­das touch and re­store the pub­lic faith and trust which might oth­er­wise crum­ble away.

It makes for a tan­ta­lis­ing af­ter­noon all round. If Maro Itoje has a stormer and Far­rell kicks his goals, a thrilling Eng­land vic­tory would to­tally al­ter the au­tumn mood mu­sic.

Just as likely, on the bal­ance of prob­a­bil­i­ties, is that Mal­colm Marx and Eben Etze­beth will flex their world-class mus­cle, Damian Willemse will be con­firmed as a shim­mer­ing new run­ning tal­ent and Aphiwe Dyan­tyi will sup­ply fur­ther ev­i­dence of his fin­ish­ing abil­ity.

The ul­ti­mate night­mare for Eng­land, fur­ther in­juries aside, would also in­volve Mitchell’s new de­fen­sive struc­ture be­ing re­peat­edly sliced open, Kyle Sinck­ler en­dur­ing a tough day in the scrums op­po­site the en­er­getic Steven Kit­shoff and the Aus­tralian ref­eree An­gus Gard­ner re­peat­edly ping­ing the hosts at the break­down.

Ter­ri­to­rial supremacy will be vi­tal, par­tic­u­larly in the first quar­ter. If there is one area South Africa will be mighty keen to ex­am­ine it is Eng­land’s de­fen­sive maul in their own 22. – Guardian


Eng­land coach Ed­die Jones with one of his co-cap­tains Dy­lan Hart­ley at the cap­tain’s run at Twick­en­ham yes­ter­day.

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