ANALYSIS: Eddie Jones facing acid Tests as Wallabies and Springboks aim to pile on his misery

Eddie Jones has been head coach of England rugby since November of 2015. His original four-year contract has been extended twice. He has secured the job through the 2023 World Cup in France, despite a woeful Six Nations this year. Autumn in England means visits to Twickenham by the southern powers. This year, it is […]

ANALYSIS: Eddie Jones facing acid Tests as Wallabies and Springboks aim to pile on his misery

Eddie Jones has been head coach of England rugby since November of 2015. His original four-year contract has been extended twice. He has secured the job through the 2023 World Cup in France, despite a woeful Six Nations this year.

Autumn in England means visits to Twickenham by the southern powers. This year, it is the Wallabies and Springboks who test Eddie’s team.

During Jones’ tenure, England is 7-0 against the Wallabies; 3-3 versus the Boks. Of course, the last Test against South Africa was the 20-point battering, and there will be a special edge to that fixture.

Dave Rennie has not had a crack at England yet, being restricted to seven Tests against the All Blacks (five losses), four Puma Tests (two wins, two draws), a 2-1 French series and a 2-0 whitewash of the world champions. All three teams will have circled their Twickers clashes in red.

2021 has been a nightmare for Jones. In the Six Nations, England slumped to fifth on the table, losing to Scotland at home for the first time in 38 years, conceding the most points ever to Wales, and utterly fading in Dublin.

An RFU-appointed panel conducted a review. The size and identify of the review panel was kept secret. Their findings found the campaign “sub-optimal,” identified systemic challenges, and spotted a handful contributory factors in England’s worst campaign in 45 years. No direct criticism was levelled at Jones, at all.

Eddie Jones (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Five points in the review were:

1. Lack of game time for some; fatigue by a few overplayed players. This was a reference to Saracens players. Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell played little, if any, club rugby between the Autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations. The Premiership’s midweek matches burned a few others out. This does not seem to make sense, because Covid gave many players breaks. Also, England has a large pool of Test players.

2. Absence and initial unavailability of certain assistant coaches. Jones’ rumoured poor relationship with Premiership coaches (foreclosing a secondment) was not discussed. His way of speaking through media is not the way Directors of Rugby prefer.

3. Breakdown indiscipline. The review was oddly specific: lower body strength was poor. This was a bit strange, because there are few rugby squads in the world with less gym strength than England. Also, Courtney Lawes has very skinny legs, but he gets in the right position at ruck time. Do you really want body builders?

4. Covid. Bubble protocols were tough, but were they tougher than England’s opposition?

5. Fixed squad. England had a 28-man squad, down from the typical 32 or 33. But, Jones still chose ‘project’ players, like teenager George Martin, who made his debut against Ireland.

The Wallaby and Springbok Tests provide RFU and Jones the acid test. Has there been “greater alignment” between the England team and the clubs to find “common ground and goals for the English game moving forward?” as the review called for? What is Jones’ rugby style path to France in 2023? Is it speed on the ball? Is it speed of clearance? Is it 5-phase plus?

The review called for “increasing speed of the game” in the Premiership, even though Jones’ team did very well with a defensive-territorial-kicking game in the Autumn Nations Cup. The clubs must have been confused by being blamed in an RFU review for not preparing their players for Jones’ style, if he had shown every sign in 2020 of trying to fix the 32-12 defeat to the Boks, by playing more like the Boks.

The last time a Jones-coached team scored a lot of points in three consecutive matches was in the 2016 tour of Australia, when England scored 39, 23, and 44 points, which saw them rise to a world ranking of number two. A happy ending to the year was a 37–21 win over the Boks, and an identical 37–21 win over Australia. It was 2017 before Jones had his first loss as England coach.

2018 was a poor year for England, with consecutive losses to Scotland, France and Ireland, a loss to the Barbarians, and a series loss to South Africa.

2019 ended with a World Cup final appearance, in which Jones’ team was overpowered by South Africa, with both sides losing key players early, but the Bok depth and impact from the Bomb Squad was the difference.

It makes sense Jones has been obsessed with how to right that wrong.

Also, having a perfect record against his old team, the Wallabies, a union which fired him, is supremely motivational for Jones.

The problem for him is beating both the Wallabies and Boks in back-to-back weeks is a bit of rugby conundrum. New Zealand has the most experience in accomplishing this tough feat. Jones has home field advantage, but the selection-and-game-plan problem remains of playing fast and tricky enough to overcome Australia on November 13, and then seven days later, mounting enough of a physical bulwark and having the patience to lock horns with brutal Boks.

England only scored 112 points in five Six Nations Tests, with a chunk of that achieved against Italy.

A Rennie-coached team is fit and ready to score. An Erasmus-Nienaber team is bloody-minded and rarely concedes constructed tries. Jones has a puzzle.

How has he tried to solve the riddle?

First, he named six more players than he had in the Six Nations: 34. That excuse is now no longer on the table.

Second, he has veered more towards speed and leg drive, and away from set piece expertise and experience. Set piece operator par excellence Jamie George was initially a casualty, along with the heavy Vunipola brothers. George has been recalled after being left out.

George Ford may loom large in Jones’ mind for the World Cup final loss. Ford was neutralised by a revved-up Bok pack, especially man marker Pieter-Steph du Toit. The extra mobility of Harlequin hero Marcus Smith is perceived as the tonic.

This sets up an interesting dilemma at 10 and 12, with 93-cap Owen Farrell retaining the captaincy.

Is it Smith-Farrell or Farrell-Tuilagi? Why select 31-year old Mark Atkinson if you don’t play him at all? Is he the English Esterhuizen? Is Henry Slade’s luck going to change?

At No.2 and No.9, Jones has tended to cycle through a dozen understudies, but just end up picking Ben Youngs (who arguably had more to do with the 32-12 loss than Ford) and frustrating George. Uncapped Raffi Quirke, mentored by Faf de Klerk at Sale, may get a rude shock if he is in against the likes of Nic White or Cobus Reinach. Or he may be the find of the year.

At scrum time, Joe Marler will presumably get a chance to show he is the answer to Bok power. But young prop Will Stuart might also get a chance.

Maro Itoje will have to recover in time; Lions tourists appear to have been almost shattered by the experience. Few have played, and some of those have been injured immediately. One tight forward with a reputation to salvage is Jonny Hill, who seems to make an equal number of awful and great plays in games, and was not given a chance by Warren Gatland to front Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.

Sam Underhill and Tom Curry may play together against the Wallabies. Against the Boks, the choice of No 8 (clever Alex Dombrandt or lower-body athlete Sam Simmonds) will be fascinating. But pushing for selection will also be Callum Chick of the Falcons and Lewis Ludlam of the Saints.

All of England’s rugby world is raving over 23-year old Adam Radwan, the out-and-out gasman. But there’s speed, and then there’s African speed. Jonny May, with his guile in the air, and use of the sideline, surely will add to his 70 caps.

Adam Radwan of England celebrates after scoring his third try

Adam Radwan (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

Nobody can predict which one of the four fullbacks (total caps: 14 for all four) will start against the kick-happy Boks. Max Malins is the Saracens player of the season, so far. George Furbank rarely puts a foot wrong for the Saints. But 20-year old Freddie Steward is being talked up as England’s Christian Cullen.

This series will either cap off the worst England season in ages, perhaps ever; or show signs of new life, and please English fans as they look ahead to 2023?

So, have the English Premiership clubs, freed from fear of relegation this season, aligned with the speed up plan of Jones?

The unbeaten Leicester (6-0) is the second-most penalised team (13.8 penalties per match), with a style that has required them to make 133 tackles a game (second most), and averaging only 81 carries per game (compared to 141 for Exeter and 120 by struggling Bristol), and a league low of 101 passes per match (Exeter complete 188 a game).

Bath has yet to win, but is beating the most defenders per carry (26% of runs beat at least one defender). Harlequins make breaks on almost 9% of their carries; Exeter on less than 4%.

The best guess is Australia will score against England (perhaps Louis Lynagh will be in the Wallaby 23!) and South Africa will stop England.

Leaving Eddie Jones in more of a muddle than he is, now.

England’s squad:

Forwards: Jamie Blamire (Newcastle), Callum Chick (Newcastle), Tom Curry (Sale), Trevor Davison (Newcastle), Nic Dolly (Leicester), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jonny Hill (Exeter), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Joe Marler (Harlequins), George Martin (Leicester), Sam Simmonds (Exeter), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol), Will Stuart (Bath), Sam Underhill (Bath). Addition: Jamie George (Saracens)

Backs: Mark Atkinson (Gloucester), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Tommy Freeman (Northampton), George Furbank (Northampton), Max Malins (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester), Raffi Quirke (Sale), Adam Radwan (Newcastle), Harry Randall (Bristol), Henry Slade (Exeter), Marcus Smith (Harlequins), Freddie Steward (Leicester), Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Ben Youngs (Leicester). Addition: Joe Marchant (Harlequins)

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‘False narrative’: The BS construct that does my head in about the Wallabies’ winning run

Call it rust, call it not playing a game for three weeks, call it back-in-the-bubble fatigue, call it whatever you like. Whatever it was, the Wallabies suffered from it while finding a way to run in a five-tries-to-two win over Japan in Oita on Saturday. Dave Rennie was quick to call it rust, and that’s […]

‘False narrative’: The BS construct that does my head in about the Wallabies’ winning run

Call it rust, call it not playing a game for three weeks, call it back-in-the-bubble fatigue, call it whatever you like.

Whatever it was, the Wallabies suffered from it while finding a way to run in a five-tries-to-two win over Japan in Oita on Saturday.

Dave Rennie was quick to call it rust, and that’s probably the easiest and simplest explanation.

But it certainly needs to be acknowledged that Japan played exceptionally well, pressured the Wallabies into unforced errors, and defended stoutly – to the point that plenty of Australian players were guilty of over-playing their hand at times.

There were certainly moments and passages where the Wallabies forgot things that had worked very well for them during their strong finish to the Rugby Championship.

“We played a lot of good footy, but we just didn’t kick the ball enough,” Rennie said post-match, elaborating on the immediate response of “rust”.

“There was a lot of space where we could apply pressure, but we tended to over play. We got some good go-forward but almost got sucked in to going more phases when they had no cover in the back field. That was disappointing and we ended up putting ourselves under pressure because of it.

“We played a lot of rugby in between the ten metres and certainly late in the game we got penalised a fair bit around there and even the intercept we’ve got a four on one, we’ve just to give to the guy next to us.

“We’re happy to win, we will be better for that game, and they were a good side.

“Every time we gave them a bit of a sniff, they hurt us.”

(Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

The stats sheets, interestingly enough, give a view of a pretty solid win: 59 per cent possession, 56 per cent territory, and increased shares of both in the second half. Excellent ruck and maul, strong set-piece numbers, and a once-again excellent tackle effectiveness of 95 per cent. Twenty-one defenders beaten, nine clean breaks, and nine offloads in attack.

Yet we all saw it for ourselves. Passes were pushed, poor options were taken, and opportunities were missed. Go-forward was lacking, and the attacking breakdown work was once again and too often half a second too late.

It’s also true that Japan didn’t really look like breaking the Wallabies’ defensive line, with a cross-kick after a turnover creating the first try, and yet another intercept producing the second.

And in fairness, if the Wallabies were rusty, then what were the Brave Blossoms, playing just their third international in two full seasons, and their first match since causing plenty of trouble for both Ireland and the British and Irish Lions mid-year?

Japan’s star on the international stage is clearly rising, and that’s a major plus that speaks to their continued improvement under Jamie Joseph.

It’s a point Rennie was at pains to reinforce at every given opportunity last week, and it’s why he had no hesitation – Michael Hooper had earlier said it was above his pay grade to answer – to add further voice to their pursuit of TRC inclusion.

“They’re worthy of where they’re sitting in the world and certainly grateful to be playing a lot of tier one nations now compared to a few years ago,” he said.

So, it sort of leaves us with the conclusion that the Wallabies’ win was solid if not spectacular. And that’s okay.

Taniela Tupou of Australia scores a try

(Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

All the champion teams over the history of whatever sport you’d care to throw up as an example would have had scratchy performances, and won games they were probably lucky to get away with, but the common denominator in all those teams was that they found a way to win in spite of the way they played.

Make no mistake, the Wallabies did a lot of things well in Oita and did play some very good rugby. But they’re the first to admit that the Japan win gives them a good platform from which to improve, with Scotland at Murrayfield now less than a fortnight away.

“There’s still a lot to go, and a lot to grow for us, for sure, but having the ability to change players in and out and guys still putting in really solid performances is certainly an aspect of the team that’s really pleasing,” Michael Hooper said last thing in the post-match on Saturday night.

“Today was really nice to get that result, and we showed a couple of areas that we can improve, but also still tick over a win there. We’ll take that up north and take on some of these European teams.”

And that all makes perfect sense.

The Wallabies’ impressive winning streak doesn’t need false narratives to be impressive.

It bugged me last week in the lead-up to the game, and it bugged me even more when it popped up several times during the broadcast on Saturday afternoon.

‘The win is the first time since 2008 the Wallabies have won five games on the trot in a non-World Cup year…’

It sounds impressive, but it’s a completely false construct designed solely for the purpose of creating distance, whereas even just a little closer inspection could have resulted in a storyline maybe even better than what the Wallabies have managed over the last five games.

Since 2000, the Wallabies winning five or more games on the bounce has happened just six times. Two of them were from one season to the next; six wins from 2004 into 2005, and seven wins from 2013 into 2014. The most recent was seven straight wins up to the 2015 World Cup semi-final win, which started with the USA warm-up game.

This year, the fourth win of the Rugby Championship, the second win over Argentina, was the first time since 2017 the Wallabies had recorded four straight wins, and it was rightly celebrated for the achievement it was.

(Photo by Jono Searle/Getty Images)

But in finding a fifth straight win, the architects of this madness decided to overlook the 2015 World Cup and the 2013-14 streak in order to get to 2008, which included wins over whatever Ireland and France sent out in June and the first two games of the Tri-Nations.

Why did they overlook 2015? Presumably because of the presence of the 65-3 win over Uruguay in the second pool match. It didn’t matter that the next win was the super impressive 33-13 win over England, or that the 15-6 win over Wales to top the pool followed – the game where they defended their try line with 13 men late in the second half.

The 35-34 win over Scotland in the quarter-final – a game that still comes up six years later – and the 29-15 win over Argentina in a semi were similarly absurdly deemed unworthy. Just so the narrative could get to 2008.

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And what happened? The essential ‘in a non-World Cup year’ qualifier was left off at different points during the broadcast on Saturday, leaving us with ‘the first time the Wallabies have won five straight since 2008’.

That is, a frankly bullshit construct had now created commentary mistakes.

It was completely unnecessary. That 2015 run was incredible and doesn’t for any reason need to be forgotten about or glossed over just because of the way it started.

But sadly, strangely, elements of the game felt this was necessary, because of a crazy notion that winning five straight games for just the seventh time in two decades needed a little something extra to pump it up.

Honestly, this game does my head in sometimes.

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