As much as Eddie Jones’s team selection to face Japan on Saturday reveals about how he wants England to play, how he wants to inject pace into a side that spluttered along in the low gears last weekend, it also shows he does not consider his job to be on the line. Defeat would be a sixth Test loss of the year and turn the pressure up a couple more notches but Jones would never leave a fit Manu Tuilagi on the bench for a match England have to win, however much his workload must be managed.
If Jones is not weighed down by a fear of failure, however, the same cannot be said of his players. The post-match message after last Sunday’s defeat by Argentina was clear: individual mistakes rather than underlying structural issues were to blame; cohesion always takes time when players are coming from so many different clubs. But as the week has worn on, there has been a willingness to acknowledge a fear of making mistakes has been holding England back.
It hardly helps that Japan are Saturday’s opponents – this fixture four years ago is known by players as the “Black Hole” game, given a number of Test careers vanished into it – and the captain, Owen Farrell, identified the problem when saying: “We don’t want to be a team that can’t make mistakes but we want to be a team that reacts well to them. We don’t want to overthink going into this [match] which maybe we were guilty of a little bit at the weekend. We want to free ourselves up.”
England will go a long way to achieving that if they can get the Twickenham crowd onside early. The rain did not help last Sunday, nor the stop-start nature of the first half, but there were times when the atmosphere was alarmingly flat. As Jones acknowledges: “It always comes down to the quality of rugby. If we play well enough this week there won’t be any Mexican waves.”
A fast start would help, and that goes some way to explaining the five changes Jones has made with Jonny May returning on the wing three weeks after dislocating his elbow, Sam Simmonds adding more pace from No 8 in place of Billy Vunipola, who drops to the bench after an error-strewn performance last week, and Jack van Poortvliet starting at scrum-half to add tempo. David Ribbans also makes a debut at lock, coming in for Northampton clubmate Alex Coles, while Guy Porter replaces Tuilagi but the aforementioned three changes are clearly designed to encourage England to express themselves.
“He’s quicker,” said Jones of the decision to select Van Poortvliet over Ben Youngs. On Simmonds, it was a similar story: “He’s got good pace.” And May? “He adds a bit of pace to us.”
Jones, however, has identified another problem. Those who have grown tired of his reasons for why England are not hitting their straps may not want to hear it, but a clutch of his players have played too few matches for their clubs in the run-up to the autumn for his liking.
Van Poortvliet is among them; so too Simmonds, Porter and May. Some of it is down to injuries and some to mandatory rest, while the fallout from Wasps and Worcester being suspended from the Premiership – thereby forcing other teams to go weeks without matches – is also having an effect.
“We’ve got this intriguing problem, a lot of our players aren’t playing a lot of rugby. We usually have the opposite. We’ve got some boys coming into camp and they haven’t played for four weeks. It’s nothing I can control, it’s not in my jurisdiction – so I’m hoping the new prime minister might sort it out, if he hasn’t got enough on his plate!”
The hope is that, with another week’s training under the belt and minds sharpened by the disappointment of defeat, lack of game-time will be less of a problem and England can find the necessary intensity from the off, even if Jones could offer no guarantees.
“We had a joint coaching meeting about how you get teams to play with intensity, always at that top intensity, and no one knows. If I knew I’d be sitting here with a 100% record but no coach in the world has [that]. You can give too much information and sometimes you’re making it too simple. It’s finding the right balance. We’ve just tried to get the messaging more about ourselves and about where we are now rather than where we want to go.”
That may be so but the decision to bench Tuilagi has been made with an eye on the visits of New Zealand and South Africa in the coming weeks. Here Jones is again, striking the balance between the present and the future, England walking the tightrope between delivering results now and preparing for what lies ahead.
There are few more dangerous opponents to be facing than Japan if they fall.