You’d be forgiven for thinking England’s final Six Nations game against Ireland was a dead rubber. Both sides have won two and lost two in this season’s competition and aren’t in danger of the wooden spoon, neither side can top the table, win the Triple Crown and although the Millennium Trophy is up for grabs, this hardly seems like a pivotal game on paper.
But it is. After all the criticism England have received this year, with the losses to Scotland and Wales, it seemed something clicked in the 23-20 win over France. A side who had conceded too many penalties and looked blunt going forward with the ball began to find their spark against an impressive France side who still had the Grand Slam in their sights.
However, if England regress again against Ireland and fail to build on that win against the French, more questions than ever will be asked of Eddie Jones and this England team. A good performance will prove that the early matches in this competition were just a blip, whereas a bad one could show that the problems within this squad run deeper than one off-colour performance.
Jonny May told BBC Sport: "It's funny really because I'm nervous now, because what does that mean if we don't back it up? We need to be on it this week, and we are. It is going to be a huge game and I bet Ireland are feeling exactly the same. They've had a similar campaign to us and they will be desperate to win this last game."
Having won the 2020 Six Nations and gone on a nine game winning streak as they won the Autumn Nations Cup later in the year, hopes were high that 2021 would be yet another successful year for Jones’ side. However, Scotland’s first win at Twickenham since 1983, as they defeated England 11-6, shocked the squad and they have been keen to put things right since then.
"The whole lot of us got a wake-up call against Scotland. I'm telling you, we got a smack. But that was the line in the sand we needed to have a good hard look at ourselves and change things,” May said.
"The response has been brilliant. We performed well against Italy and won, we performed well against Wales and lost. And then it felt like we sort of brought it all together, upped the performance and got the result against France."
This England side has been incredibly functional over the past couple of years, relying on set pieces and their strong defence to grind out wins, but for many people the success in 2020 papered over the cracks that were starting to show in England’s attack. Against Scotland, those issues reared their ugly head once again, and the whole squad suffered.
"Our set-piece and our defence was brilliant, we won games, but our attack wasn't quite right. That got swept under the rug because we were winning games,” May explained.
"And then Scotland on a day where the set-piece and defence wasn't quite where it needs to be, which will happen sometimes, it really shone a light on the fact our attack wasn't there to win us the game when it should have been. So that hit home, and we got hold of it as players, and we've been taking step forward after step forward ever since then."
Against Ireland this weekend, there may not be the big prizes at stake, but this game could dictate whether England are bouncing back and on an upward trend, or whether there are deep-set deficiencies in this side. If it is the latter, Eddie Jones may have run out of time in charge of the team.