Here we go, here we go, here we oh. So, 16 days from the World Cup they have spent the past four years preparing for, England arrive at their final warm-up game against Fiji on Saturday sixth in the world rankings, shepherded by a new coaching team who are on a run of three wins in seven, steeled by a defence conceding an average of four tries a game, sharpened by an attack that has scored that amount in their past 400 minutes and led by a captain – and starting fly-half – who is banned from playing in two of their four group games. Oh, and their only specialist No 8 is going to miss their opening fixture too.
Hear that distant rumbling? Could be it is the other teams in the group – Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile – quaking in their training boots because England are about to launch the most elaborate rope-a-dope since Muhammad Ali came out swinging in the eighth. Could be it is a couple of loose chariot wheels tumbling off down the hill. Or maybe it is just the resonant voice of the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Or: “Some things weren’t quite clicking,” as Sweeney said after the RFU sacked Eddie Jones in December. “They weren’t working the way we all thought they were going to work.”
Well, thank goodness he fixed it like this, otherwise you would have to wonder whether he really deserved that 55% pay rise. In Sweeney’s defence, there were only two good reasons to keep Jones on and neither had much to do with the rugby his team were playing.
The first was that when the RFU decided to extend his contract through to the end of the World Cup it was betting on his track record in the tournament. That includes one title as a consultant with South Africa in 2007, and, as a head coach, two runner-up finishes in 2003 and 2019, plus one of the greatest underdog performances in the history of the sport when Japan beat South Africa in 2015.
If Jones has proved anything in his career it is that he knows how to steer a team through to the tournament. It is perhaps the only thing you could say about him that will not start an argument in the clubhouse.
The RFU backed him all the way until it was just about too late to change, then bottled it because England went down by 14 against the Springboks a week after they drew 25-25 with New Zealand. Oh, and Jones said some rude things about the public school system too. Anyway, Australia have taken that bet now. It is going to be fascinating to see how it plays out for them.
The other, more pertinent, reason for keeping Jones was that for once the RFU had a sensible succession plan. It was an open secret they wanted Steve Borthwick, who knew Jones, and the players, from his spell as England’s forwards coach. He had won a title with Leicester Tigers, but still needed a little more time to develop as a head coach, get his support team in place and work on his ideas about what direction he wanted to take the team heading to the next World Cup cycle.
What he got, instead (“here, Steve, catch this!”) was a hospital pass. It is beginning to feel very much like he, and his team, are about to get absolutely clattered.
The whole point of a succession plan is that you are in control of the present and the future. The RFU has managed to organise its plan so that it has compromised both. Borthwick is a good man, and thorough, but watching his team hobble through these warm-ups it is hard not to have flashbacks to his days as England’s captain, which were characterised by a very earnest and effortful hangdog ineffectiveness. With so little time to work in and no real idea what Jones’s plan was for these six months, Borthwick has, understandably, decided they had best make like the Major government and get back to basics. He has got England playing a sort of rugby 1.0.
The general effect is that they now come across like a cover band of the 2019 side that reached its peak when beating the All Blacks 19-7 in Yokohama: it’s the same faces, playing the same sort of power game, but it is all a bit dull, lumpish and unconvincing. Four years later, everyone else has long since moved on.
Borthwick has been talking about taking inspiration from the 2007 tournament, when England were humiliated 36-0 by South Africa in the group stage and ended up making the final. Given that the senior players had to take over control from the coaches, it is not the most inspiring plan, but it is, apparently, the best hope they have.