England’s shock defeat to Scotland last weekend certainly threw up more questions than answers for Eddie Jones and his side. The 11-6 loss, England’s first defeat to Scotland at Twickenham since 1983, may have drawn criticism from those hopeful of seeing a more exciting and fluid side, but there is no reason to throw the baby out of the bath water. Not quite yet anyway.
The rest of the Six Nations campaign has become incredibly pivotal to both Jones and his England side, in fact the next four games could well decide his fate. Next up, Italy. Barring a complete and utter embarrassment, England will get back to winning ways but while we’re unlikely to learn much from the result, we may find out plenty from the performance. If Jones’ side can’t play free-flowing, entertaining rugby and score a bonus point against the worst side in the competition then the problem runs deeper than a simple shock loss to Scotland.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup was a resounding success for England, even if they didn’t come away with the trophy. Their semi-final win and performance against tournament favourites New Zealand will live long in the memory, and even though South Africa got the better of them in the final, England fans left that tournament feeling positive about the future and incredibly happy with Jones in charge heading into 2020.
Clearly last year was anything but normal. Just one defeat to France across the 12 months saw England eventually take home the Six Nations and win the Autumn Nations Cup, gaining revenge on Fabien Galthie’s side by beating them in the final of the latter, but could those two successes have papered over the cracks of a declining side? They only won the Six Nations on points difference and needed extra-time to win the Autumn Nations Cup against a weakened France, slim margins for one of the world’s finest sides.
Rather than an impressive springboard, might the World Cup final appearance prove to be the pinnacle of Jones’ England tenure? This side promised so much ahead of 2021 in what was deemed to be part of a steady build towards the 2023 World Cup, and the squad were saying all the right things as they looked to adapt their game from their pragmatic and functional style. Jamie George claimed they wanted to “take teams apart”, Henry Slade wanted to play more with the ball in his hands and Jones himself spoke about the “evolution” of his side.
Yet things didn’t materialise that way against the Scots and another issue reared its head. When England go behind in a game, there simply seems to be no way back. Managing a game when ahead with clever kicking is to be expected, but perhaps that reliance on kicking drains confidence from a side when they need to score tries and play with the ball in their hands to get back on terms with the opposition.
Owen Farrell seems like a one-man band at times, taking on the responsibility as captain, kicker and creator, while without the injured Manu Tuilagi, England lacked any sort of dynamism in midfield. They even failed to make a single clean line-break against Scotland, the first time that has happened in eight years and a clear indication that this side, in its current form, is not good to watch.
A lack of game time for several players was cited as one of the potential reasons for the opening game loss, which is why it is so important to see where England go from here. With a ‘refreshed’ Mako Vunipola returning against Italy, George Ford back in the side and the rest of the squad able to get more minutes under their belts, that excuse won’t be acceptable against Wales later this month.
At the moment that Scotland defeat can be categorised as simply humbling for this England team. The rest of this campaign will tell us so much more. Win their four remaining fixtures and they are likely to win the championship, even if the Grand Slam and Calcutta Cup have escaped them this time around. Lose to any two of Wales, France and Ireland with stagnant displays and this could easily be Jones’ final farewell.