Jones show is back on the road to World Cup
Two Tests have restored England’s prospects and suddenly talk of No1 does not seem so far fetched
On an escalator out of Twickenham a New Zealander shouted: “It was offside and you know it.” An Englishman in a stripy blazer called back: “We all know Richie McCaw wrote the offside rules.” Whatever the badinage between the fans, a review system that saved England seven days ago deprived them of an epic win over the world champions.
Eddie Jones has started talking again about England’s ambition to be the “No 1 team in the world.” He did it on Thursday at the training base and he made the same reference in the post-match press conference here.
This noble aim was shelved when England were losing six of seven matches; but confidence is creeping back, with or without marginal calls by officials. So Mr Twickenham, in his stripy jacket, need not despair.
England lost but the show is back on the road, and the World Cup can be discussed again with more excitement than trepidation.
If talk of “margins” in sport induces yawns, no back-to-back games will offer a more vivid illustration of how capricious fate can be. Last week, the television match official excused a no-arms Owen Farrell tackle late in the game against South Africa and denied a Springbok penalty that might have won them the game. Farrell’s lucky break lifted a rock off Jones.
This time, TMO told the referee, Jerome Garces, that Courtney Lawes had come from an offside position when charging down a TJ Perenara kick, and so Sam Underhill’s snake-hipped try was disallowed.
A one-point win, a one-point defeat. England have lived on the edge in two entertaining Tests.
The edge, though, is a lot nicer than where they were five months ago: in free-fall.
The annus horribilis is over. The dreadful Six Nations campaign, with its fifth-place finish, and series loss in South Africa no longer point to an unravelling of the Jones regime. Instead they can file it away as some inexplicable stumble, caused, perhaps, by complacency and loss of impetus after 18 straight wins. If Jones’s management style had run out of road (another theory much discussed), he has made a fresh start, opened a new chapter, in part by introducing fresh legs and minds after a ridiculous run of injuries.
Take the No7 role, which is, to English rugby, what the No10 is in English football – a creature in short supply, and a subject of lamentation. Where there was a void, Jones can now have high hopes of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, who was immense against New Zealand. In the front row, Ben Moon and Alec Hepburn have raised their hands. This is not to write off the Vunipola brothers or any of the crocked established stars.
Yet the understudies display a refreshing lack of jaundice. They have taken South Africa and New Zealand on with remarkable self-belief and resilience, despite possessing only “400 caps” to New Zealand’s “800” – a point Jones was keen to make.
England were dominated by a profligate Springboks side in the first half but recovered valiantly, with Jones’s tactical nous and replacements to the fore. Then, they started briskly against an All Black team that were still in “tea and scones” mode (another line last week from Jones). From the moment Brodie Retallick dropped the kick-off you could see New Zealand were not switched on. But credit the England players for exploiting that Kiwi laxity and running up a 15-0 lead within 25 minutes.
With those Chris Ashton and Dylan Hartley tries, Twickenham was in ferment. New Zealand have won the last five matches between these two nations and 83 of their 93 Tests under Steve Hansen. In the Twickenham fortress, where a sense of entitlement prevails, nothing unsettles the locals like those black shirts going through the gears. Butterflies invade the stomach, and there is always the fear of a battering.
In fact, only one of England’s five recent defeats by New Zealand was by more than eight points. The Lions showed what can be done if teams stop New Zealand dictating the pace and shape of a game. Encouragingly for Jones, his players showed both an urge to rip into these fearsome guests in the first 35 minutes and an impressive degree of tactical control. How ominous, though, were those final five minutes before the break. A 23-phase All Black surge and 10-point grab told you what the second half would be like. Farrell’s conversion, after 25 minutes, was the last time England troubled the scorer. From there, New Zealand posted 16 unanswered points. When Jamie George replaced Dylan Hartley at half-time (Hartley’s game-time is shrinking by the week), England’s line-out fell apart and New Zealand emptied their bench to restore the natural order.
The Lawes offside was not his only painful moment. Three minutes later, with an overlap, he threw a pass behind Henry Slade. You could find dozens of supposed turning points in any game and roll out what-ifs. A week after Farrell’s controversial tackle, however, Underhill’s disallowed try took on a cosmic significance.
“Sometimes the game loves you, sometimes the game doesn’t love you. You’ve got to accept that if you stay in the fight long enough the game will love you,” Jones said.
England, under him, are back in the game and back in the fight.
England have lived on the edge in two Tests, but that is nicer than where they were: in free-fall
Kicking on: Eddie Jones played an active part in England’s warm-up and he will have been pleased by what he saw at Twickenham yesterday