Eddie Jones used his experience to full advantage in his first four years in charge of England but since the World Cup final he has veered from grumpy to irascible, no longer sure of touch. On the day that the former Ireland second-row Dan Tuohy marked his retirement by declaring that rugby union was starting to look rotten from the core, Jones embroiled himself in more controversy, with an offensive throwaway remark to a reporter that was swiftly followed by an apology and a clarifying statement from the Rugby Football Union.
Defeat to Ireland at Twickenham on Sunday would all but end their interest in the title and raise more questions about the Australian’s future just four months after the epic World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand. The opposition coaching box will be inhabited by two men who were part of the England’s coaching setup before Jones – Andy Farrell and Mike Catt. With the other two members of that management team, Stuart Lancaster and Graham Rowntree, also based in Ireland with Leinster and Munster respectively, the past will haunt the present and may determine the future.
England’s decline since losing to South Africa in the World Cup final goes beyond the hangover beaten finalists usually suffer. The occasion is often the end of a cycle but they were a young side on the up whose best was still to come.
Four years ago, Jones was the future, a whirlwind of new ideas and an emphasis on fitness and energy, but now there is a sense of obstinacy, especially in selection. It was Jones’s strength, but against Ireland he continues with Tom Curry at No 8, has restored Courtney Lawes to blindside and has moved Jonathan Joseph from the centre to the wing, having dropped the full‑back George Furbank, who despite a long-standing groin injury remained with the squad as cover, and was not tempted to give a first cap to Ollie Thorley.
This is a selection based on the need for victory after the opening‑round defeat in France and the narrow success in the Murrayfield rain and 13 of the side started the World Cup semi-final victory against the All Blacks.
In Ireland, Farrell has been credited with lightening the atmosphere in the camp after the rigidity of the regime under Joe Schmidt, whose only poor year was his final one. It followed victory over the All Blacks but Ireland’s tactical inflexibility cost them in the World Cup. Farrell, who was part of Schmidt’s team, has opted for continuity rather than change but the difference is in approach.
The Ireland captain, Jonathan Sexton, has remarked on the “contagious energy” Catt brings and a team that under Schmidt rarely offloaded or took risks has many more pages in its playbook. After home victories over Scotland, when they profited from the wastefulness of their opponents, and over Wales, when they posed a threat out wide, playing away will pose different questions, although no visitors have won more matches at Twickenham in the Six Nations era than Ireland.
Farrell invited Paul O’Connell to spend the week with the squad until they left for London on Friday. “I like people asking questions,” said Farrell in explaining why he had called on the former Ireland and Lions captain. “He is someone the boys really respect.”
Ireland’s last visit to Twickenham was August’s 57-15 defeat in a World Cup warm-up match. Thirteen of England’s starting lineup remain, the injured Joe Cokanasiga and Billy Vunipola are the absentees, and it was a performance they took into the World Cup. The Saracens affair has been an unwelcome distraction for Jones, but successive home matches against Ireland and Wales give him the platform to recalibrate the title bid.
England recorded the only away victory in the opening two rounds, highlighting the significance of home advantage. Sunday is an opportunity for Jones’s men to not just end Ireland’s unbeaten start but recover the dynamism and purpose they had in Japan. The inclusion of Lawes provides another ball‑carrying option and an extra lineout target, but the battle of the No 8s, Curry and CJ Stander, will be key. Stander has been remodelled by Farrell. A player known for his attacks on the gainline has become strong over the ball, forcing turnovers and penalties. He secured victory over Scotland on his own line and Wales struggled to deal with him. The August meeting with Ireland was the first time Curry and Sam Underhill started a Test together but they became fixtures in Japan, packing down either side of Billy Vunipola.
The No 8’s injury gave Jones the opportunity to look at a player of similar style, such as Alex Dombrandt, but he opted for Curry. He has relied on hunches in his long career and they have generally paid a return. After a number of missteps this year, he needs his instinct to work for him again. “We have our players coming back to their best and we have had a great preparation,” said Jones. “We are ready to put on a good performance.” And how he needs one.