When on this blog last week I expressed a desire to see Japan make a big impact at Twickenham, I was not quite expecting them to comprehensively outplay their hosts for the best part of an hour. And outstanding as they were, it has left England’s autumn campaign in a confused state. After a fortunate win against South Africa, and an unfortunate defeat to New Zealand they were probably in credit. After Saturday’s escape against Japan, albeit with a weakened team, they are slightly behind the curve.
Which leads to the question of what Eddie Jones should be wanting to get from Saturday’s meeting with Australia in order to be confident that real forward strides have been taken. Beyond the obvious goal of a win, a first truly comprehensive and convincing 80 minute performance for a good two years would see England end a difficult year having regained at least a semblance of a spring in their step.
The other main priority has to be for some more players to make themselves undoubted first choice selections. At the start of the autumn, arguably only 3 players could be described as nailed on starters in a specific position: the absent Vunipola brothers and Ben Youngs. Three more, in Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly, joined them as guaranteed starters but which number they would each wear was unclear. Erratic selector though he may be (and I should caveat this whole article with an enormous ‘PENDING SELECTION’ sign) Jones must have been targeting knowing at least ten of his starting team, for the Six Nations let alone the World Cup, by this Sunday. So what progress has been made?
I would say Jones now knows 6 of his starting team in their exact positions – still the Vunipolas and Youngs, Farrell and Itoje have nailed their positions down and Kyle Sinkler is the tighthead. But Elliot Daly has slipped from guaranteed status. Which means that the number of starters Jones can hang his hat on has increased by precisely zero. The autumn cannot be called a success unless this number increases.
So elsewhere, what has Jones learned? The hooker debate continues – Jamie George has not really taken his opportunities but Dylan Hartley was taken off at half time against New Zealand. In the second row, and assuming he selects him, Jones must be looking for a real statement performance from Courtney Lawes this weekend – he needs to demand a starting position, whether it is at 4 or 6. Joe Launchbury’s stock has suffered no damage from his absence.
In the back row, Mark Wilson has been a success story and has probably nudged ahead of the pack at 6. There are a lot of other fairly generic 6/8 practitioners around, none of whom blow your socks off. On the other side, Sam Underhill is surely the starting openside ahead of the unfortunate Tom Curry but it remains to be seen if he can play 5 games in a row in a short time without breaking himself.
While Billy Vunipola is the 8, given his injury record Jones will want to be clear on his back up. Zac Mercer was excellent against South Africa but poor against Japan and seems to have fallen out of favour. If Nathan Hughes returns, he will need to play better in the white shirt than he has of late.
Jones now appears to have settled on Owen Farrell as his starting 10 and linchpin but the centre spots are really up for grabs. Henry Slade has been given his first real run in the team and has not completely convinced, some nice touches mixed in with some errors, including a frenetic defensive mistake for New Zealand’s only try. Jonathan Joseph’s return from injury will provide competition. Inside him, Ben Teo has looked understandably rusty and may only be keeping the shirt warm for Manu Tuilagi but that is a huge leap of faith given his injury troubles. If Farrell is to play 10, the 12 shirt is a huge question mark. Both centres need to make real statements on Saturday
England have great strength in depth on the wing. They lose nothing by playing any of Jonny May, Jack Nowell, Chris Ashton, Anthony Watson or Elliot Daly. Joe Cokanasiga has also played his way into contention. Full back however, is a real problem. Daly is the one player who has lost his guaranteed starter status this autumn and it is extraordinary how uncomfortable such a talented footballer has looked. A big performance from him will be very high on Jones’s wishlist.
So what is behind this ongoing selectorial flux? One could argue that consistent performance would breed consistent selection, but one might equally argue that it is the other way around. While some players have been picked from nowhere only to quickly disappear without trace, it seems others are selected regardless of how anonymous they are. The levels of unpredictability cannot be helpful.
Jones is also paying the price for leaving it so late to refresh his team. His loyalty to Brown, Hartley, Dan Cole and Chris Robshaw, means that unless he reverts to the old stagers he only has a year to bed in players in key positions. Similarly after three years of Ford and Farrell he appears to have abandoned that, while his chopping and changing in the second row, centre and back 3 have mitigated against developing established trustworthy combinations.
Jones’s selectorial inconsistencies have played a significant part in the confused picture but it is now up to the players to remove any doubt and make the decisions for him. If more players performed at the consistent level of a Farrell, an Itoje or either Vunipola, the coach might have an easier job. This weekend then, Jones will have a particular eye on (again pending selection) Lawes, Wilson, Underhill, Teo, Slade and whoever he picks in the back 3 to put up their hands and demand selection. Not enough players have done that and if none of them manage it on Saturday, the autumn will have been a disappointment.
By Stuart Peel