Eddie Jones rouses England to purge 2019 demons against Springboks

It does not require a degree in the science of rockets to suggest English rugby needs an upbeat end to a problematic year. If parliamentary select committee hearings now involve an element of grandstanding, this week’s stark conclusion – “failure on an epic scale” – is not something the Rugby Football Union will be keen to hear echoing around Twickenham after the national team’s final autumn Test against a pumped-up South Africa.

To some the messy financial collapse of Worcester and Wasps might appear peripheral to England’s progress under Eddie Jones and certainly to a home stadium full to the brim with 82,000 thirsty punters. The truth of the matter is that all those things are directly linked to the same conundrum, namely the split personality that continues to hold back the sport even in its red rose heartlands.

Because what exactly is the real England, on and off the field? No one seems entirely sure. The domestic Premiership is arguably as watchable as it has ever been yet the sums still do not add up. The current matchday experience at Twickenham feels as if somebody is trying to stage a rave in an old people’s home, which rarely pleases anyone. And the team? Still apparently a work in progress after what has been, to date, an inconclusive November.

So just as now is the time for all English rugby’s multiple stakeholders to agree sweeping reform can no longer be delayed, this would be an equally good moment for those wearing white to display greater clarity and, above all, consistency. Having run the All Blacks ragged in the last 10 minutes last Saturday, how about flicking the turbo switch slightly earlier than the 70th minute? And if the last World Cup final in Japan was just one of those bad days that occasionally happen, is this not a prime opportunity for the home pack to right a few nagging wrongs?

Jones, for one, still has painful images of 2019 seared across his memory: “I have a 5G vision of it now. You never forget that moment, when you’re standing on the field and you see the opposition getting their gold medals. You hear the crowd going crazy and you’re standing there like a spectator. All the work you’ve done over a long period of time means nothing to you. That never leaves you. There will always be something in the players who played in that game. You can never change the result but you can change the feeling you have. That’s the opportunity for a number of our players this weekend.”

It helps to explain Jones’s ongoing obsession with winning next year’s World Cup in France at the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Viewed through that narrow prism this game takes on an additional importance, as will the Six Nations games against France and Ireland next March. If England are unable to overcome any of the teams ranked above them now, it is going to be even harder next autumn.

In that regard it was interesting to hear Jonny May, one of the survivors of 2019, suggest this week that, while England are behind where they were at the corresponding stage prior to the last World Cup, their potential is now greater. “We were probably further ahead in the journey of what we were as a team but it was a narrower gameplan,” said May. “This broader gameplan [that] we’re trying to get to terms with is harder to achieve.”

In other words England are aiming higher, pinning a huge amount on the ability to adapt their game as and when required. We have heard this theory recited for years, of course, the downside being the ever changing cast of players auditioning for specific roles. For all the talk of ‘finishers’ being as valuable as ‘starters’ it still feels curious that Ellis Genge can be named in World Rugby’s team of the year last Sunday and, six days later, not make England’s run-on side for such a huge fixture.

Jack Willis, similarly, is a good enough player to have been snapped up this week by Toulouse but is not even in the matchday squad. Henry Slade was outstanding off the bench against the All Blacks but is still ‘riding the pine’. Strength in depth is a positive, clearly, but only if the starters set the necessary early pace and tone. England barely scrape into the top 10 of try-scoring tier one teams this year and three late tries against a 14-man All Blacks side cannot mask the need for them to start faster.

It used to be a speciality, with Manu Tuilagi’s try in this corresponding fixture a year ago a good example. England, having taken a 14-3 lead, ultimately edged home 27-26 thanks to a late penalty from Marcus Smith but it helped once again that the Springbok captain Siya Kolisi was sin-binned in the final quarter. Discipline will be similarly crucial this time: English momentum was too often stifled against the All Blacks by the peep of the referee’s whistle.

Even with Rassie Erasmus banned from having any matchday involvement following his latest social media outpourings, the officiating is pretty certain to be pivotal again. Australia’s Angus Gardner was also the referee in charge of this fixture in 2018 when England won 12-11 after Owen Farrell controversially escaped censure for an apparent no-arms tackle on André Esterhuizen.

Gardner subsequently admitted he should have awarded a penalty and any hint of a repeat will cause South African conspiracy theorists to start howling at the moon again. It would be a much better look for the sport if the post-match message boards end up being full of praise for the extremely promising young Bok No 8 Evan Roos, the tireless Kolisi or the attacking vision of Willie le Roux.

England, though, are mostly hard to beat at home at this time of year. This will be Jones’s 21st and final autumn Test at Twickenham as head coach and his record currently reads P 20 W17 D1 L2. Both those two losses were by a single point. Given South Africa are without a few squad regulars with this game falling outside the international window, it feels as if it should be England’s day if they are prepared to seize it. An epic win, at the end of a bruising week, would certainly go down well in the RFU committee box.