Nobody said this was going to be easy. And if Eddie Jones is finding the plush surroundings of English Rugby’s headquarters to his liking, what’s happening on the field will have the Australian squirming in his seat.
Not in a bad way you understand. Quite the opposite. Rugby at the moment in the Aviva Premiership has more than enough plus points, and many of those have an English hue. But Jones is not in place as cheerleader or advocate. His job is to pick an England team to fulfill potential in this year’s Six Nations. A XV to face Scotland is in a notebook on his bedside table. But I bet he has a pencil and eraser.
A few weeks ago the story surrounding Dylan Hartley being named as national team captain broke. The idea being that here was someone tough and uncompromising, someone able to add some bite to England’s bark. You could see Jones’ thinking. Hartley would bring that edge; he’s a player as likely to smack you in the teeth as shake you by the hand. And after a World Cup performance lacking his front row leadership, he’d surely be a first name on the teamsheet.
Wouldn’t he? Let me explain what is happening at the Gardens. Northampton had their noses put out of joint by a surreptitious approach towards their attack coach Alex King; England and Jones wanted him. Saints’ Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder was quite terse in interview, claiming the right channel had not been swum. Bristol had kicked up a stink about Steve Borthwick being poached but ultimately relinquished their grip; Northampton were going to hang tight. This last week an impasse was reached, Saints would not part with their man; it looked like the King was being castled. The rugby world began to take note as Mallinder declared his next, seemingly cantankerous, move: ‘Mikey Heywood is my best hooker at the moment; Dylan can sit on the bench.’ No one, Mr Jones, said this would be easy.
Meanwhile at Quins, trumpets were being sounded. O’Shea, Easter and Evans all chorused the same song via the press as Christopher’s PR machine cranked out copy: “Pick Robshaw at 6.” The England captain (he still is, right?) had been moved from his openside berth and was quickly reinventing himself; driving Quins’ engine room and tackling his body to a standstill (these things are always better from the blindside). Impressive showings started to mount up and then, just as Jones was eyeing up the Welford Road offerings, Robshaw empowers his team to a previously unachieved win. Saracens, with Vunipola and Itoje and Farrell and Goode, were undone by a cleverer, ballsier and ultimately better Harlequins side. Nobody said this would be easy.
At the Twickenham Stoop, Danny Care was masterful; the marionette’s strings looped effortlessly around his fingers. Chudley at Exeter, a player becoming more and more valid as an option, was steering the Chiefs to another good win but it was at Leicester where scrum halves were delivering. Dickson, something of the forgotten man, yapped and terriered Saints back to life and back into the game. And Youngs… Saturday afternoon was Youngs at full tilt; slicing holes, picking passes, buying penalties… Ben Youngs was brilliant.
No 8? Billy Vunipola was back to his bullocking best but you really need two eights to do a job at international level. Ben Morgan was inconspicuous in Devon but Waldron wasn’t. I know he’s not fashionable but he keeps scoring tries; keeps getting Exeter moving; keeps winning. There is another name however. A good one, a young one, a name people have been talking about him for a while. Is Jack Clifford ready? In one of the most abrasive Premiership fixtures of the season, Clifford held his own and then some. Do you risk the potential? Harelquins are in form, he’s in form, but is that enough? No one said this would be easy.
In the second row, players aren’t falling over themselves to get picked, they’re just falling over. Injuries have hit Attwood, Slater and now Kruis; Parling isn’t quite back to his best and Lawes doesn’t seem himself. How important does someone like Launchbury become? Do you turn to Matt Symons. A man full of Super Rugby superlatives but who, at London Irish, hasn’t really hit his straps. Itoje for all the world seems ready, many would bet the house on it. But is he?
And props – why can I only think of Cole and Marler when I say English props? Injury and absenteeism mean England are light here too. At fullback it seems an impossible call between Brown and Goode. What about an openside – does the previously ignore Kvesic get the nod? At 10; Farrell? Or does the lad from Sale actually get a proper go? The problems at Bath seem to have knocked the George Ford question on the head.
Oh, and the problems at Bath. Can you remember the halcyon days when the spine of English rugby played upon the River Avon? Of course you can, it was less than a year ago. Ford Snr now looks a wounded man. He spoke in soft apologetic tones this week and alongside Stuart Hooper was left offering the bitterest sporting cud there is: candour. “You have to admire their honesty” tweeters tweeted. You know you’re at a low ebb when you are being congratulated for telling the truth. You’re facing Toulon away to turn your season around and people are pleased you recognise that you didn’t play well in losing to the side bottom of the table. England’s go-to man plays for Bath. Jonathan Joseph was untouchable, undroppable, even at 50% fitness he played. Does Jones pick him in February? It’s not certain. Eliot Daly’s performances are conspicuously good.
And yet, and yet, (say it quietly) Manu Tuilagi. Off the bench and into Jones’ heart on Saturday. A massive try saving tackle was all it took to remind us what we’d been missing. Cockerill feels the Six Nations is too soon but you can understand why Dicky will have roughly ‘£450,000 a year’ of reticence. Can Manu get back to full fitness? Could he be the answer to Eddie Jones’ questions? Of course: the Australian and the Samoan to reawaken English rugby. The foreign coach and the prodigal son. When you put like that it seems easy. I always said it would be.
This column was written before George Ford and Bath’s performances in Toulon. The debate over who plays for England at 10 should include Ford Jnr. Credit to him and his Dad for making me wrong.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved.