It’s all or nothing for Eddie Jones’ England in their final Six Nations game against Ireland on Saturday.
While the sky won’t fall in if they lose, and the Six Nations crown has already gone to the Irish, three losses in a row would represent something of a crisis.
Battered by Scotland, upset by France and then beaten by Ireland at home would be not the way Jones would want to prepare for a tough three-match series in South Africa. There are fewer hostile places to play rugby union in the world than Ellis Park, Loftus and Newlands, where rugby is a religion. With the All Blacks following the Springboks, there is some tasty challenges to come. Confidence would plummet with a third consecutive defeat.
Before that loss at Murrayfield England were riding a huge wave of momentum. Back-to-back Six Nations winners, ranked second in the world, on a run of 24 wins from 25 matches, Jones’ men could do no wrong. How that has all changed in a little less than a month, as they have crashed back to earth.
England have not become a bad team overnight, nor is major surgery needed. But there is a need for a reaction at Twickenham, a need for a performance of enthusiasm and intent. Ireland bested them last year and revenge is surely on the hosts’ minds.
What has hurt England in this Six Nations has been the loss of Ben Youngs at scrum-half and a lack of speed in the back-row. Youngs has played an integral part in the rise of Jones’ team in the past two years. He has gone to new heights as a player and his partnership with George Ford has been exemplary. Danny Care has not taken his chance as a starting 9 with Youngs out. So Jones has benched Care, with veteran Richard Wigglesworth getting his chance against the Irish.
Ford has also been dumped, somewhat harshly, with Owen Farrell moving from inside centre to 10. The combination between Ford and Farrell has been outstanding, but Jones is obviously seeking more dynamism and strength with the inclusion of Ben Te’o in the centres. Te’o is certainly an X-factor player who can do the unexpected, down to his rugby league background.
Mike Brown continues on the bench, with Anthony Watson selected at 15. Again this is a nod towards more dynamic play and creative ability with the choice of Watson. Brown is a great defensive fullback, a top runner of the ball but possesses no passing game to speak of or ball-playing ability. The modern-day fullback needs to be a 10 in disguise and been able to do it all, ala Damien McKenzie, Israel Folau and Israel Dagg, and Watson suits this role better than the more one-dimensional Brown.
But it is in the back-row where England has faltered most in their past two matches. Against the Scots Jones went with Nathan Hughes at number 8, Chris Robshaw at openside Flanker and Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker. All three are tall, lumbering masses, strong and hard-hitting, but crucially, all similar and slow. He went with the same back-row against France.
England’s lack of a proper openside, in essence since Neil Back retired, has come back to bite them. What Jones wouldn’t do for a David Pocock or a Ritchie McCaw he could call on. The breakdown is the most important area of any rugby union game, the focal point where every match is won or loss, and England have been second best in this area. Exeter’s young star Sam Simmons, with speed and skill, will give England much-needed pace at the ruck tomorrow.
The furore over comments Jones made a year ago, where he bagged Ireland and Wales, is a mere sideshow. This is what happens when a team is struggling and losing, and bad news stories start popping over all over the place. Jones knows this better than most and won’t let it distract him. He will have hammered into his players the importance of this match and of playing at pace and skill against a physically powerful Irish side.
Jones is a fighter, a scrapper who loves nothing more than proving people wrong. Now it is England’s time to show some similar fight.