England have lost five Tests in succession with morale in decline
England’s Kyle Sinckler and Mako Vunipola tackle South Africa’s Franco Mostert during the second Test in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Photograph: AP Photo
The Eddie Jones era has been nothing if not educational for the Rugby Football Union. The idea was to hire the world’s most experienced coach, shower him in cash and then sit back and watch him reel in the 2019 World Cup. The only thing Jones will be catching between now and Christmas, at this rate, is a flight back to Australia.
Harsh, perhaps, on the guru who steered England to 24 wins in his first 25 matches, but those halcyon days are starting to read like dog-eared fable. England have lost five Tests in succession, are in danger of unravelling as World Cup contenders and, on and off the field, seem to have had the joy and personality sucked out of them.
It is reaching a point where their morale is almost as shaken as it was in the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup. Things do not feel entirely right behind the scenes, with Jones’s all-pervasive influence at risk of becoming counter-productive. The players seem caught in a fug of indecision, many of the feted Lions of 12 months ago are shadows of their old selves, assistant coaches are either leaving or communicating publicly in robot-speak and the roster of backroom staff has been allowed to become ridiculously bloated.
Worse still, England are acquiring a reputation that will concern the RFU even more than recent results. In addition to a few terse media interviews and unseemly on-field spats, both the coach and a squad member have been drawn into verbal altercations with supporters immediately after games.
Travelling English fans – staying at the team hotel in Bloemfontein – reported even polite requests for pictures were frowned on. They were similarly unimpressed when a senior player jumped a lengthy reception queue saying he had an emergency, which turned out to be requesting an extension lead for his PlayStation.
Jones remains a knowledgeable rugby man with a vast repertoire of amusing soundbites but the unhealthy culture he is overseeing needs rebooting. Too few English players are demonstrating an ability to think on their feet and, for whatever reason, good players are being sucked into a tactical morass. Blaming the absence of several players from this tour is a red herring; South Africa have lost hundreds of players to overseas clubs and have been comfortably the better side in the series.
Aside from Jonny May, how many England players would make a combined XV picked purely on the evidence of the first two Tests? Nor is Owen Farrell’s first tour as captain proving an auspicious one. Twice his team have made positive starts only to be overtaken by a Springbok side playing with appreciably more belief. The Saracens fly-half’s warrior qualities are well chronicled but schmoozing referees is not his strongest point and the past two weeks have been sobering.
“When the pressure has come on we have not been as clear as we should have been,” Farrell said. “We are going to have to figure it out if we are going to start turning it round.”
Switching him to his preferred number 10 shirt next season and finding an alternative captain may sound an extreme solution but England cannot afford to rule out anything.
Jones says England require only a “two or three per cent” improvement but their descent to sixth place in the world rankings would suggest otherwise. With Billy Vunipola under another injury cloud and more question marks hanging over the front five, the back row balance, half-back and midfield, an instant cure is unavailable.
The RFU also needs its cricket-loving coach to take a fresh guard. From slagging off the Welsh and Irish and comparing the Bath owner, Bruce Craig, to Donald Trump, to flogging players in training and unsuccessfully preparing in Durban for two Tests at altitude, Jones has not got a great deal off the square lately.
Smashing an already weary squad during the Six Nations, ignoring some of the Premiership’s better players for no logical reason, conceding nine tries to the Barbarians, bringing players on tour who probably should have been rested, blooding youngsters only to humiliate them by dragging them off at half-time: it is not an edifying list.
A damp forecast for Cape Town is the latest complication; a slower track should theoretically help England but without the two Vunipolas and Ellis Genge they are running short of dynamic ball-carriers.
Biting the bullet and giving Danny Cipriani his first England start in a decade has to be one option, with Dan Robson also overdue a start at scrumhalf. England need all the renewed energy and bright ideas they can muster. – Guardian