So the dust has settled. All the furore and bluster has calmed down. We are now in the cold light of day, where common sense and rationality often prevail.
So what really happened and what did it all mean? Well, England won the first of their Quilter Autumn Internationals and, in very narrowly beating South Africa 12-11, they restored some pride and confidence to their badly derailed chariot. It clearly meant an awful lot to the players and head coach, who were unusually animated. Fists were pumping, man hugs launched with gusto, an outpouring of emotion to follow all the disappointments of recent matches.
England really needed this win and whilst far from convincing in a match that they really should have lost, they deserve credit for being resolute and determined.
England were very fortunate. On another day, South Africa would have been out of sight at half time but if a team does not take its chances then they deserve all that comes their way. The men in green were unusually profligate, hooker Malcolm Marx being the chief culprit, three times throwing over the top of a line out from strong attacking positions deep in the English half. So, at half time, all they had to show for their dominance was a neat close range try from the forever dangerous Sbu Nkosi, after some slick hands and a Henry Pollard penalty. He was only to add one more in the second half.
This latest new look England side battled and fought for their lives, tackled strongly and never gave up. As the match wore on they visibly grew in confidence, gained a little more parity up front and began to give the Barbour-clad Twickenham faithful something to shout about, their voices growing louder after each South African knock-on and every extra pint.
England never really looked like scoring but some attacks from deep involving the dangerous back three of Elliot Daly, Jack Nowell and Jonny May had the crowd on their feet. Indeed if Daly had offloaded a little sooner on a couple of occasions then the try line may have been threatened. However, he partly redeemed himself with one of his trademark monster penalties from inside his own half to take England into the lead.
So what for Eddie Jones, who has taken his fair share of criticism in recent times? Such criticism, it must be said, has not been without foundation, for some of his recent selections allied to his somewhat obdurate and stubborn approach seem to fly in the face of all evidence from the field of play. Danny Cipriani for one, having being pivotal to England’s last victory in South Africa in the summer and being the stand out player in the Premiership in the early rounds, being rather cruelly discarded. What more can he do ? Don Armand is another who can feel mightily aggrieved for his continued omission, especially in the light of his continued outstanding contribution for the evergreen Exeter Chiefs and the current dearth of back row options. Well, the proof is always in the pudding as Eddie would say and an England victory inevitably papers over the cracks.
In the backs, Eddie has seemingly abandoned his strategy of two playmakers at 10 and 12, instead selecting Ben Teo at inside centre having only played less than 30 minutes of rugby all season. To be fair, Manu Tuilagi pulled up again in training at the eleventh hour so Eddie’s options were somewhat limited having already released Alex Lozowski, but all the same, this was something of a bizarre selection. Surely any international coach or team would surely want their players to be in form, or at least having played some meaningful rugby before taking on some of the world’s best ? It could be argued that only Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola deserve such exalted treatment.
George Ford was relegated to the bench and does not really fit the bill of being a game changing impact replacement as Cipriani might. However, Eddie seems to have a soft spot for Ford, along with Teo and the returning Chris Ashton, who has hardly played a game yet has been seemingly welcomed back with open arms, despite being banned yet again before the season began in earnest and having only played one game since. His selection for the New Zealand match bears testimony to such preferential treatment. Charlie Sharples and the now NFL bound Christian Wade can only look on in wonder.
For all his foibles, Ford is a decent footballer and Eddie must be applauded for having faith, which certainly gives his players confidence, even if in the face of popular opinion. Eddie will of course argue that he is not in the job to win popularity contests and if he wins rugby matches then that is all that matters.
So the pressure was on England’s talismanic no 10 and co-captain ( what is that all about ?) Owen Farrell to deliver and yet again he came up trumps as he invariably does. He is probably now the first name on the team sheet and he is crucial to England’s ongoing success. He organises, cajoles and kicks his goals and is never one to shirk a challenge, which was very nearly to his and England’s detriment as his late and arguably high challenge in red time could so easily have been penalised and punished. On another day ……
Whilst the back line did not really function much as an attacking force, that was principally due to the fact that England won very little ball in South Africa’s half. As a result, much of the possession won was kicked by Ben Youngs as England sought field position which, in the circumstances, was arguably the right decision. It became quite a cagey yet increasingly exciting contest as each side traded blow for blow as the match proceeded to its conclusion.
By and large, Eddie has now decided on his back line and it has a far more bold and attacking look with the axing of Mike Brown, loyal and reliable but no longer really of international class. If Daly is not the answer then Alex Goode surely has to be parachuted in. Eddie just needs to finalise his centre pairing and will be praying that Tuilagi returns to fitness and soon.
Up front, Eddie’s options were decimated with an all manner of injuries, those to the Vunipola brothers being arguably the most significant. However, for every injury comes an opportunity and against the Boks, Newcastle’s Mark Wilson, appearing at number 8, gave an inspired display. George Kruis and Maro Itoje were back in harness in the engine room and seem more refreshed and in tune after more of a summer break and a very good start to the season for Saracens.
However, the front row and back row remain a concern with question marks over all of the front row. Does Dylan Hartley still really warrant a place in the starting fifteen ? Do Kyle Sinckler, Ben Moon, Alec Hepburn have the strength and scrumaging power to compete at this level ?
As to the back row, England could get blown away if not careful. They hustled and harried well against the Boks but do not really possess any notable ball carriers, without Vunipola and Nathan Hughes. The next best option, Zach Mercer, has been released for the New Zealand match, following the return of the experienced Courtney Lawes to the bench. Brad Shields, on the flank, remains unproven at this level and it will be interesting to see how he performs against the All Blacks this Saturday, the country who deemed him not good enough to wear their jersey.
So, is the chariot back on track ? Well after one match against a badly misfiring opposition it is far too early to say, but at least it is a step in the right direction. A far bigger test awaits on Saturday when New Zealand roll into town and it is unlikely that they will be as charitable.