Pressure mounts on England’s Eddie Jones to rediscover his touch
Defeat in opening Test to South Africa makes it four losses in a row for the visitors
Eddie Jones: the England head coach saw his team blow an early 24-3 lead before they eventually lost 42-39. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images)
Losing the odd game of rugby is an occupational hazard but, as Eddie Jones knows all too well, it can become a habit.
Thirteen years ago Jones led Australia to eight defeats in nine games, including two in eight days at altitude against the Springboks, and duly lost his job. England’s barren stretch has yet to reach Kalahari desert proportions but their recent stats still make uncomfortable reading.
Including the Barbarians game last month – not a Test but still a fixture involving several of Jones’s frontline players – England have conceded 14 tries in a fortnight.
On Saturday they leaked no fewer than 39 points in just 44 minutes to a South African side which had been trailing 24-3 after 20 minutes. With the exception of Argentina versus Wales in Buenos Aires in 1999, no leading nation has blown a bigger lead against another tier one team. The match finished 42-39.
With two Tests left to play against their still-improving hosts, England have lost four in a row and are in danger of falling below Wales to fifth in the World Rugby rankings. In six Tests in the Southern Hemisphere under Jones their opponents have averaged almost 30 points. Once home teams gather momentum, the tide seems to keep on coming.
Jones has been around long enough to detect the flashing amber signals. Yes, England were excellent in the first 20 minutes but, equally, South Africa’s defensive organisation was all over the place initially. Even after the Springboks came rampaging back, partially helped by Elliot Day’s unfortunate misjudgment in his own in-goal area, there was still time to regroup, maybe slow the game down, kick intelligently and preserve some energy.
Instead the exact opposite happened, whether down to complacency, the effects of altitude, a lack of discipline or all three. It felt, at times, as if the game was being conducted to a zany Benny Hill soundtrack. All too seldom did England seem capable of putting a foot on the ball, tweaking their tactics or putting any prolonged pressure back on their hosts.
For all the brilliance of Faf de Klerk and Willie le Roux – and the wider significance of Siya Kolisi becoming his country’s first black Test captain – this was a less than invincible Springbok team, with its two best forwards Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx both missing. Even so England were outsmarted at the breakdown, outpaced at half-back and outmanoeuvred for two-thirds of the game; with two Tests remaining they are now also definite outsiders.
Privately even Jones must be concerned, having been hired by the Rugby Football Union at vast expense to bring home the 2019 Rugby World Cup from Japan. It is less the fear that his selectorial touch is deserting him – why pick Nick Isiekwe only to humiliate the 20-year-old Saracen by hooking him after just 36 minutes? – than the nagging issue of whether his autocratic style is becoming counterproductive.
The primary reason for replacing Isiekwe was to introduce Brad Shields, who has a good rugby brain and was captaining Beauden Barrett for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby last Friday week. Tossing Shields into the fray with such indecent haste is less about injecting individual brilliance than a relative shortage of other forward leaders.
With Joe Launchbury and Dylan Hartley injured and Chris Robshaw looking increasingly leaden-footed, England do not have too many in-form tacticians left.
Owen Farrell theoretically possesses all the requisite qualities to do the job but twice – in Paris in March and now Johannesburg – England’s discipline has dissolved on his watch.
“If we fix up the discipline side of things, probably a lot of things fall into place after that,” Farrell said. “If you give away so many penalties you go backwards so much it’s tough to get any momentum back.”
Redemption in Bloemfontein this weekend may also necessitate some tinkering on the team sheet. If Launchbury is fit he surely returns, Harry Williams will enter the frontrow reckoning and Shields or Mark Wilson must be close to starting on the blindside. Sam Simmonds’ dynamism might be useful off the bench with another fast-paced contest looming.
For all George Ford’s early creative genius a case can also be made for changes behind the scrum. If England intend to outflank De Klerk there is a case for starting the mobile Dan Robson at 9, which would enhance Danny Cipriani’s prospects.
There seems little point bringing Cipriani for him to sit idly in the stands and the same applies to Denny Solomona. At a time when England need more direction and directness, there remain some enticing options at Jones’s disposal.
If, alternatively, this series is lost 3-0 and England reach November having not won since February, the pressure really will be on. The RFU has invested too much to start panicking prematurely but it needs Jones’s Midas touch to resurface soon. While the head coach has known worse times on the high veld – during his time at the Reds they once lost 92-3 against the Bulls in Pretoria – a previously buoyant England are returning to earth with a bump.
“The way we played the first 20 minutes, we didn’t look like a side who had lost their last three games,” Jones said.
True, but snatching a fourth consecutive defeat from the jaws of near-certain victory rarely suggests a Test side going places.