England still bear all the hallmarks of a work-in-progress

Demanding tests against Ireland and France will tell us a lot more about Jones’s side

It used to be painting the Forth Bridge which was considered the ultimate in never-ending jobs. These days it is the England rugby team, a work-in-progress for so long that people have almost forgotten what the original timescale was meant to be.

There are some weekends, and this was another of them, when it also feels as if Tracey Emin’s unmade bed might be the secret artistic inspiration for Eddie Jones’s still-ongoing project.

Nothing is ever finished with Jones, regardless of the evidence available.

“It’s got no ceiling,” he insisted on Saturday night on the subject of England’s supposedly limitless attacking potential. Maybe so but it takes a coach of supreme self-belief to talk in such terms when his side has just been outscored at home by three tries to one by a Welsh team who, by their own admission, really started to play only after half-time.

Luckily for Jones there was not an additional five minutes available, with a depleted Wales unexpectedly looking the more dangerous side.

It means that England, on paper at least, are still in the title hunt with two rounds to play and a chance to confound all those who regard France and Ireland as comfortably the two strongest sides in the championship.

In that respect, an opportunity clearly remains for England to tear off the dust sheets and masking tape and reveal themselves in a different guise against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday week. Do that and everything would hinge on a final weekend showdown against Les Bleus in the City of Light, an 80-minute blank canvas crying out to be filled with something momentous and daring.

But are England really about to confound the restless critics?

For all the elusive promise of their diminutive half-backs, Marcus Smith and Harry Randall, a closer look at the stats does not necessarily suggest so.

In three games to date they have registered one try –Kyle Sinckler's late effort against a well-beaten Italy in Rome – after the 53rd minute and have managed to average barely 11 second-half points per game against the three sides in the bottom half of the table.

Those figures have also been massaged by Alex Dombrandt's slightly contentious try on Saturday, a gift courtesy of an overthrown Welsh lineout and the apparent nudge which prevented Adam Beard from jumping for the ball.

Remember when Jones was touting his “finishers” as England’s trump card and challenging his squad to become “the greatest team that ever played”? The World Cup is clearly his overarching priority but it is reaching the stage where the gap between some of the things Jones says in public and the actuality makes the Grand Canyon look like a surface crack.

He was at it again after the Wales game, indulging in his favourite pastime of taking gratuitous aim at the slightest hint of media scepticism.

“We’re definitely on the right track; no one needs to tell us if we are or we’re not,” he sniffed at one point, before informing one respected reporter that he would no longer be replying – “Have a nice life” – to any questions from him in future.

Two stools

If England do end up becalmed in mid-table, though, it will prompt many to ask – with Jones now into his sixth year at the helm – whether a country with England’s playing resources might have made more progress by now with another head coach in charge?

The Rugby Football Union, for example, could have hitched their chariot to Andy Farrell and Shaun Edwards, both now threatening to become serious impediments to England's World Cup prospects, or hired at least 100 more gracious alternatives with greater affinity and affection for the English game.

Maybe that does not matter to the RFU hierarchy but the sport still waits for a head coach to win a men’s World Cup with a nation other than his own. To be successful in 2023, furthermore, England need to find a consistent identity and stick with it.

Everyone can instantly see what a defensively tightened, powerful, ambitious France stand for and there is a similar coherence to everything Ireland are now doing. England? They still seem stuck between two stools, lacking the overwhelming forward aura to give their backs the extra momentum that will make all the difference.

Last year in Dublin the Ireland game was barely a contest, the hosts winning 32-18 despite a red card for Bundee Aki. The same referee, France’s Mathieu Raynal, will be in charge again and will hopefully preside over a more flowing spectacle than Scotland’s Mike Adamson oversaw on Saturday.

Adamson has now awarded 50 penalties in two Six Nations games this year and, as an assistant referee for the Ireland game, the odds would suggest he could yet be a central figure again.

In the meantime England will head to Bristol to train this week, with Jones claiming the squad’s new leadership group is bedding in nicely.

“If a pregnancy is nine months we’re talking about the first two months here of where we want to be – what we’re seeing are some good signs. You don’t win a game like that unless you’ve got good spirit.”

Perhaps but England will need more than emerging team spirit to overcome Ireland and France. They can only pray Wales do them a favour against the French in Cardiff on Friday week but, for all the impressive defiance of Wayne Pivac's side, that feels unlikely.

Either way England’s destiny, as Jones says, is still in their own hands. Finish the job from here and the bigger picture will be stunningly transformed. – Guardian