A tournament-ending Grand Slam at Twickenham, a transposed version of events in the eyes of the English.
As many predicted, the final round of the 2018 Six Nations did result in a Grand Slam at Twickenham, even if it was an inverse of English fans' anticipations.
Rory Best led his men to the third Grand Slam in Ireland's history and a trio of trophies under head coach Joe Schmidt. Ireland were worthy winners, outclassing an England side embracing the changes, hoping to crash the St. Patrick's day celebrations.
While Ireland were clinical and dominant in nearly every aspect of the game, they faced a markedly improved England side to the team put to the sword by both Scotland and France. That said, Dylan Hartley's men still offered an incomplete performance found wanting in crucial areas. Jones' charges were plugging gaping holes in their sinking ship, only to realise the extent to which the hull was punctured.
Breakdown issues resolved
The breakdown was the key focus area for the England set-up, media and fans following the disasters in Edinburgh and Paris. Prior to being removed from the matchday officiating team, Marius van der Westhuizen was called in to assist in the interpretation of the breakdown. A move that proved successful. The breakdown was not a problem area, with James Haskell and Chris Robshaw leading the charge in securing ball and delaying Irish service. It may not have been enough to win the day, but took a strong leap in a seven day period.
England's ineptitudes were many and left a gap too large for the likes of Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and Mako Vunipola to fill. Further highlighting the extent to which this English side must bolster their ranks. For the most part, Steve Borthwick's pack failed to supply the half-back pairing of Richard Wigglesworth and Farrell consistent front-foot ball, lacking in an ability to puncture the gain line in a dependable manner. Something their Irish counterparts did not fail to achieve.
In short bursts around the 25-minute-mark and during the final 15 minutes of a frosty Twickenham clash, England's forwards did manage to gain momentum, for a time. It is no coincidence that these moments saw Elliot Daly and Jonny May cross the whitewash, twice for the former. Despite drawing equal with Ireland for tries scored (Ringrose, Stander and Stockdale), three missed conversions and a high penalty count proved too costly for these moments of ascendancy to prove prosperous. The playing and coaching staff must now be reassessed to provide such go-forward on a regular basis.
The Way Forward
Indiscipline, combinations not yet bedded in, injuries, an intensity deficit, indiscipline and a lack of adaptability and ingenuity are all issues which contributed to England's loss. Some more than others. Jones must take the blame for all of these shortcomings, many of which have endured since the much-maligned Stuart Lancaster era. Even injuries seem to be attributed to the workload his players are put through, pushing them too far in the week to cope with the intensity of test match rugby whilst also enduring a domestic club season that already places far too much demand on players.
Since their impressive 2016, England's penalty count has been rising, with no signs of stopping. Intensity has dropped and their inability to adapt is criminal. Jones has fixed several deficiencies in the side he inherited from Lancaster and now has a team closer to the finished product than many doomsayers will be suggesting, but it still requires a significant amount of TLC to evolve.
The changes wrung by the Aussie for the final round were promising and proved effective enough to avoid another shaming. Jones is clearly aware of the issues and went a reasonable way to fixing them in a seven day period. If you take away one or two 50/50 refereeing decisions, the same number of unforced errors from otherwise consistent individuals and add a kicking record higher then 0%, the final result may well have been balanced on a knife-edge.
That said, the situation in which Jones and England find themselves is unacceptable and could have been avoided. Jones allowed himself to become blinkered, turning a blind eye to a handful of flaws ready to be fixed from the day he took his role. The English public, the best pundits and media aficionados were alight with the prospect of the promising individuals Jones would bring through to the test arena. Instead, Jones stuck with much of the same for far too long.
Mike Brown and Dan Cole have been consistent, reliable and trustworthy performers, but lack a wider skillset to take England to the next level. The transition of Cole from starter to wider squad member for a more dynamic, threatening option should have begun over a year ago and not in a one week period.
Anthony Watson should have been given a much longer run at fullback than the last two games alone and could have benefitted from a year as England's starting fullback. Had the Lions tourist been phased in this time last year or even during the 2016 November Internationals, we could now have been looking at Watson and Daly or another for the 15 jersey.
Jones held onto Lancaster's side for too long, unable to realise that the clamour for the likes of Watson and Kyle Sinckler to start were well-founded and worth a test. Although, who can blame them? How often does the opinion of the masses prove correct? Nearly never.
That said, whether Jones avoided the changes due to popular opinion or an inability to see the long-term gain, his process is clearly flawed. That is not to say Jones doesn't know what he is doing, far from it. The 58-year-old has taken his side a long way, and by and large, he has made the correct decisions. A few changes across three or four positions have been missed and sometimes when you're too close to a project, it's near impossible to see it. The addition of a full-time attack coach with international pedigree is a must, bringing a voice more qualified to specialise in the moulding of England's attacking game plan and the introduction of new, exciting individuals tearing it up in the Premiership and Europe.
The most telling part of Jones' career with England and the forecast for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan will be the manner in which they move forward. If Jones falls back on the side that started the tournament, using the loss to Ireland as the excuse, we can expect similar heartbreak to the last World Cup.
The England boss must now build upon the solid foundations he has laid, and quickly, lest they crumble amidst confusion. Charlie Ewels and Zach Mercer are just two examples of players Jones has overseen the development of and can begin to reap the rewards. He must also welcome in players that have thus far been left out in the cold, expanding the currently limited potential of the squad. it is imperative that Don Armand retains his place in the EPS while Wasps star scrum-half Dan Robson must be introduced as a regular squad member. A blend of blossoming youth and in-form Premiership regulars embedded within the squad can help take England to new heights, but only if the right staff are steering the ship.
The return from injury of Ellis Genge, Billy Vunipola, Nathan Hughes, Tommy Taylor, Manu Tuilagi and Jack Nowell can all go some way to offering Jones further options. His biggest challenge is deciding who will fit in and add what is lacking, and who will merely offer much of the same. Such is the responsibility and pay-grade of an international head coach and something the likes of Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen have proven a track record in doing.
It's Not All Doom And Gloom
Despite the issues highlighted above, all is not lost, there is plenty of potential in this side that can now serve as the foundations of one of the grandest skyscrapers in the international climate. England are closer than their results give away and a fifth-place finish should be tempered with the competitiveness between second and fifth. The spot England find themselves in was preventable, but they are not as far behind as first sights suggest.
In a parallel universe where Joe Schmidt suddenly takes over from Jones, we could expect England to be in contention for a Grand Slam by this time next year. It's all down to how Jones manages his squad. Not only must he tweak his selections, but the intensity in which he trains them. It's all well and good having a side that trains themselves to the nth degree, but if you are draining the tank that should be emptied on match day, you will never see your full potential.
Eddie Jones must now live up to his name as one of the best coaches in World Rugby and take a side full of promise, both present and future, to the next level. If the Australian proves too stuck in his ways and fights change, his fate will be no different to Lancaster's in 2015.
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