The Spring internationals are upon us after nearly three years of World Cup and pandemic disruption.
“Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry. Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.” – Albus Dumbledore.
2021 England have been consigned to ash during their abject Six Nations campaign.
Eddie Jones – the ultimate taskmaster – is signed on until after the 2023 World Cup. However, many feel his England team needs to be reborn like a Phoenix, but he has less than two years to rise from the ashes.
Jones’ England performances of late are a far cry from their indomitable performance against the All Blacks in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup in 2019. His charges did manage to sweep all before them during a truncated Six Nations and Autumn Cup (due to COVID) the previous season.
However, this year, they finished in fifth place with losses to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales for the first time in 46 years. The only glimmer of light has been the immense victory over a resurgent France which had all the hallmarks of what England can do and have done well during his tenure.
The Roses showed composure, resilience, and a mental fortitude against France which harked back to their glory days of matching the All Blacks and Springboks for a record-winning run of 18 Test matches on the bounce.
Against France, they were enterprising and unpredictable with the ball-in-hand, their tactical kicking was astute, but most important was the manner in which they found a way to win with nous, leadership, and equanimity.
Scrumhalf Ben Youngs said, “This was the blueprint” in the aftermath of that tremendous victory whereby they battled back on more than once occasion to finally take hold of the contest.
Most of us would have thought that this would be the proverbial ‘spark’ the English needed to finish their campaign strongly before the summer break.
Instead, the Irish annihilated them and their tumultuous season came to a crash and burn halt.
Whilst Jones has the backing of his trusted senior players, such as Maroe Itoje and Marko Vunipola, who both have publicly backed Jones, his ability to reinvent and more pertinently reinvigorate his players for next season will arguably be the most challenging and defining moment of his reign thus far.
Jones has admitted that his team needs to evolve and change, stating, “The fact is that this team was always going to go through a period like this following the World Cup. It’s a period where we’ll transit, there will be changes in the team which we’re seeing already.”
The question on everyone’s mind would be just what change he can possibly create to breathe life back into his team that seems to be going stale in their application to winning Test matches.
In saying that, he knew this team would go through a period of growing pains – surely, Jones must have thought of some form of contingency plans, or, is it a case of sticking with tried and tested until it becomes untenable?
England do look long in the tooth as a team. Some of Jones’ star players such as Billy Vunipola, Owen Farrell, and the ever-combative Itoje haven’t been in fine form. Whilst form is temporary and class is permanent it is rather concerning that their slump in form is now becoming serious due to its longevity.
Of course, players (especially in today’s modern game) are not going to be able to carry their top form throughout the season – it is simply too long.
Yet one would have thought after the France victory and more importantly the manner of that victory would have been a catalyst to see them finish the season as strongly as possible and not in the meek manner they capitulated against Ireland.
However, the alarming speed of the team’s drop-off in performance is what would concern Jones and his bosses, the ‘blazer brigade’ at the RFU.
From winning back-to-back tournaments to finishing just above lowly and non-existent Italy in the space of a few months is a dire indictment of where England is during their second four-year cycle towards France in 2023.
It speaks perhaps to the players not buying into Jones and his philosophies anymore, the same message week-in and week-out is in dire need of refreshment – be it new, improved tactics, an additional coaching consultant, or fresh young talent being brought through to give the squad a lift and competition for places.
Jones is infamous for his at times rather brutal assessments of players and their need for improvement. Dylan Hartley was once Jones’ captain and right-hand man and was a mainstay in the English team until he was told by the coach before the World Cup in 2019: “You’re fucked, mate,” and was dropped unceremoniously.
That is the cutting edge of professional sport, a ruthlessness personified by Jones. But have his mind games and drive for perfection from his players begun to wear thin on his current crop?
Jones, for all his coaching credentials and accolades, is not immune to the rigors of international sport, one day a hero the next day a zero, especially under the rapacious eyes and pens of the English press.
He has shown that he is able to reverse the fortunes of a team on the decline – he did it after England’s horror 2018 run whereby he also finished fifth in the Six Nations, but duly went on to a World Cup Final the following year.
Jones has proven himself to be a shrewd selector and perhaps now is the time to immerse himself in seeking players that will be able to add a point of difference and freshen up what does look like a squad in dire need of change.
If he’s given time and able to find some semblance of equilibrium within his squad, as well as his tactics, you will see England rising like a Phoenix.
If not, you can bet Jones will be remembered for his ashes, rather than rising from them.