Eddie Jones has said there will be a few bumps in the road for England before they hit the World Cup in 2019. Is the wily Aussie just preparing England fans for a fall?
Eddie Jones set the bar high in his first calendar year in charge with a first Grand Slam in 13 years, a whitewash against the Wallabies down under and 13 wins on the spin all told so he has been quick to dampen expectations.
In the 13 games in 2016 England won three – against Scotland, Wales and Australia in Sydney, by seven points or less. Sooner or later you are going to come out on the wrong end of one of those….or are you?
So what would make a successful 2017 for the England head coach and where might the bumps in the road come?
What is coming up?
England have the Six Nations, a game against the Barbarians on 28 May, a two-Test tour of Argentina and autumn internationals against Argentina, Australia and Samoa – that is 10 capped internationals for Jones to get his teeth into. Eight or nine wins out of 10, plus a decent run-out against the Baa-Baas, should keep him happy but the first defeat, if one comes, is bound to be painful but, as he keeps saying, it is better to lose one now than in the knock-out stages of the World Cup.
England’s Six Nations campaign kicks off against France, at Twickenham on 4 February, and Jones is behind the eight ball already with the amount of injuries he has to contend with. The Aussie loves talking about casualties being opportunities for other players to come in but even he must be worried and England’s much vaunted strength in depth is about to be tested. On the plus side Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell, James Haskell and Anthony Watson, all missing in the autumn are back in the frame so Jones would expect to knock over France at home.
England’s other games at Twickenham are against Italy and Scotland and the boss would also fancy his chances of winning those – the Italians have never beaten England and Scotland have not won at Twickenham since 1983.
But trips to Cardiff and Dublin could be entirely different matters. England have a decent record at the Millennium Stadium, they have won five out of 10 there since 2001, and two out of the last four including a 21-16 victory in 2015. But Wales will be waiting and are probably sick to death of hearing about the Jones Revolution east of the Severn.
But if the cards fall the right way England could head to Dublin on the final Saturday of the tournament with a Grand Slam on the line for both teams. One bookmaker has England at 8/11 for the title and Ireland 5/2 – it feels a lot closer than that. If Jones pulls off another title, let alone a Grand Slam, he can give himself a pat on the back but from this range four out of five wins, even with three games at home, would be good effort.
British & Irish Lions selection
Jones’ England will only face the All Blacks once before the 2019 World Cup and they need as much exposure as they can get to the best team in the game. Of the 23 who were picked to play Australia at the end of the autumn only 10 had played a Test in New Zealand and Jones need get more miles into them against the world champions, the only problem is he can’t do it himself.
That is where the Lions come in and Jones will be looking to have somewhere between 10 and 15 on the trip, form and fitness permitting and several in the Test team. Any win over the Kiwis will help dismantle the aura of invincibility the All Blacks have as England have not beaten them since 2012 and add to Jones’ data bank.
As the coach said: “You have got to know your opposition – you have got to know what they like to do and what they don’t like to do. The Lions tour gives our players a great opportunity to play against virtually every player in New Zealand.” Jones already has Steve Borthwick on the Lions’ coaching staff to help him gather intelligence.
Played the day after the Premiership final so Jones will be without players from two teams, and blokes who make the Lions tour, but it is still a chance to see some unfamiliar faces in training week.
With some of his big guns in New Zealand Jones can have a look at his other options. His stated aim of wanting three world class players in each position might be a bit fanciful but there is no point in not trying. England have two Tests in Argentina, on 10 June and 17 June, and Jones might rest players who he knows about and who don’t make the Lions trip so some senior players could get the summer off.
Last time England went to Argentina, in 2013, the Lions were also on tour and Stuart Lancaster, yes him, gave internationals debuts to, amongst others, Billy Vunipola, Jonny May and Marland Yarde. Joe Marler, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Jonathan Joseph, Mike Brown and Joe Launchbury were all on that trip and are all still in the mix.
They won those two Test matches 32-3 and 51-26 and Jones will be after something similar and to see some new talent coming through. He could have a proper look at Bath’s new boy Sam Underhill at last, Wasps’ Sam Jones, who has been injured, plus players like Mike Haley of Sale, Don Armand of Exeter and Dan Robson, another Wasp, who toured South Africa with the Saxons last summer.
With 2018 nearly on us, when England will tour South Africa in the summer, Jones will expect three wins against Argentina, Australia and Samoa to round off the year in style. The team could look very different by then though and if he has got nine, or even10, Test wins out of 10 his status as a rugby messiah will remain undiminished.