If several questions remain over England’s progress towards the World Cup next year after a series victory against Australia, that over the future of Eddie Jones has been unequivocally answered.
To put it another way, Jones can finally look forward to visiting his elderly mother who, alarmed at speculation over whether he would be sacked, had warned him earlier in the tour to not come home until victory had been secured. “She’ll be very happy,” Jones said after the series had been wrapped up in Sydney. “I might get a nice sukiyaki from her.”
Certainly a second series win in Australia gives Jones significant breathing space and there are considerable doubts as to whether his employer would have been willing to wield the axe even in the event of three defeats. There are undoubtedly more signs of tangible progress than when the Rugby Football Union made such a claim after another dismal Six Nations and there are platforms upon which Jones can build towards the autumn which, as is becoming a recurring theme, he has already billed as a “mini-World Cup”.
Chief among the positives is that there is clearly a togetherness about this squad. Courtney Lawes is an immensely popular leader and if there was a degree of friction when Owen Farrell was stripped of the captaincy they have evidently developed a prosperous working relationship. “With Courtney’s more laconic style, they have created a great fit at the top,” Jones said.
Ellis Genge has developed into an integral part of this team, someone who sets the tone for the side, while Richard Cockerill – who has seemed back to his usual animated self in Australia – has forged a formidable pack with a maul that can now be viewed as a serious weapon. The improvements at the breakdown – with Lawes leading the way – were evident after difficulties in the opening defeat in Perth, and in both Brisbane and Sydney England were able to close out victories in the face of a fearsome comeback from the Wallabies.
If there were defensive frailties early in Sydney, there was a robustness in the closing takes that again speaks to the unity forged within the squad. The emergence of players such as Tommy Freeman and Jack van Poortvliet is a major plus, though it was a disappointing tour for Danny Care, Joe Cokanasiga and Joe Marchant.
Equally, there are doubts as to how much progress has been made when you consider the aims of the coaches before departing for Australia. The humiliating defeat by the Barbarians was brushed off by Jones because England were experimenting with new ways to attack but while that continued in the defeat in Perth there was a change of tack in Brisbane and Sydney. Playing a power game based on physicality and abrasiveness is certainly effective but the manner in which England reverted to it suggested an acceptance that developing new attacking methods needed to be put on hold after the first Test loss.
Before the tour the attack coach, Martin Gleeson, said “we’ll hopefully see the biggest difference in our attack”, on the back of a Six Nations that yielded three tries, the Italy match notwithstanding. For all the talk of promise, of jam tomorrow, demonstrable progress in that sense is thin on the ground. In Perth, they were too lateral, in Brisbane they reverted to a route‑one approach, and in Sydney, as Lawes acknowledged, England barely fired a shot.
At the heart of the matter is Marcus Smith’s partnership with Farrell in the 10-12 axis. It is probably too early to label Smith and Farrell English rugby’s equivalent of the Lampard-Gerrard conundrum given they have played only four matches together but they are yet to click as a double act.
In the first Test, Farrell stepped in at first receiver too often and if that is part of the plan to allow Smith that little bit more space, England ended the series with six tries, two of which were scored when the game was up in Perth. Of the other four, two were from driving mauls, one when Smith seized on a loose ball and only one that displayed an element of creativity. “With the players we have got we can score loads of tries,” said Smith. “We have just scratched the surface of that.”
In Sydney, there were glimpses, particularly when Smith fizzed a pass to Farrell, who tipped to Jamie George, who released Freeman down the left, but moments such as that were in short supply across the tour. Smith now has 13 caps for England – “now out of nappies”, according to Jones – and adjusting after the honeymoon period of capping Harlequins’ 2021 Premiership final triumph with his first two caps and a call-up to the British & Irish Lions tour. “I guess when I started I was a bit naive,” he said. “Just thinking I could do what I did and that has got me in trouble. I have learned from some bad experiences in an England jersey and I am desperate to learn as quickly as I can.”
Jones is stubbornly praiseworthy of the Smith-Farrell partnership but his conviction will be tested if Manu Tuilagi can prove his form and fitness in the autumn while Henry Slade also comes into the equation.
Smith would not be the first player to struggle with life in Farrell’s shadow but there is an insistence from within the camp that the partnership will come good. If nothing else, winning the series in Australia has allowed for more time to persevere.