Jones jumps to Hartley's defence as ghosts loom
Eddie Jones glossed over the finer details of his last experience in Cardiff with customary elan. "I have lost there, mate," he said late on Saturday. "My last Test as Australian coach in 2005. It hasn't got good memories for me so we better win there. I haven't coached there since."
It isn't so much the 22-24 defeat to Mike Ruddock's side which he takes west in his interior mind, next weekend, as the brutal consequences of it: the subsequent termination of Jones's contract as the coach of his own beloved nation and the press conference which he fronted in the aftermath, tears welling in his eyes. "I didn't divorce Australian rugby, Australian rugby divorced me," Jones reflected last year, his choice of metaphor revealing how much the consequences of that Cardiff day cut him.
Jones was letting it all hang out in the aftermath of Saturday's victory over France, with his scornful talk of the "petrified" English needing to sort out their fear of Cardiff, which sounded like a calculated challenge to his players. But the match-up ahead presents him with doubts and concerns, much though he obscures them. We saw against the French what an England minus the Vunipolas and Chris Robshaw looked like and it was not pretty for a while. The story of those personnel who did it for Jones and those who did not underlines that this man does not have it all worked out, even as he seeks to extend the winning run to 16.
It was for good reason that some starters were not finishers. Jamie George looked preferable to Dylan Hartley; Ben Te'o to George Ford. The front row found themselves smashed by the French for 40 minutes and the substitutes were desperately needed to help change things. The bench provided the architecture of the match-defining England try as well as the touch down. Critical metres gained came from James Haskell and Jack Nowell, before Owen Farrell drew Gael Fickou inside and some positional naivety from Noa Nakaitaci allowed Te'o in. Jones could speak with enthusiasm in the aftermath about Elliot Daly, Nathan Hughes and also Maro Itoje's qualities of adaptation, as he called lineouts in a Test match for the first time. But it still looks like a work in progress, even though Owen Farrell's performance and leadership could allow Jones to call this his best game under present management.
"We can play George and Owen. We can play Owen and Te'o and we can play Owen and [Alex] Lozowski," Jones said. "We can frame the game how we want to…" All of which was to say that he does not know his best XV and admits there's "no formula" for when good bench performances like Saturday's earn the performer in question a start. "At the moment, that's the team we've picked. Whether we pick the same team next week, I will sit down and have a think about it…"
Te'o may have done enough to start in Cardiff, putting George Ford's place under threat. It could be Te'o at 12, with Farrell moving inside to 10 and, with Jonathan Joseph's place surely safe, Ford on the bench. For all the success that Jones has brought, we still seem to be engaged in the same debates which dominated Stuart Lancaster's ill-fated World Cup.
When Hartley's indifferent performance was concerned, there seemed to be some defensiveness from the coach who has invested so much in him as captain. "I don't know why you are singling out Dylan. Every player needs to be looked at because we didn't play well enough. The coaching staff needs to be looked at, I need to be looked at." The last statement was the standard coaching device for protecting an underperforming player.
Some perspective, though. England turned Saturday around and what has changed since that autumn of desolation under Lancaster is the presence of mind and initiative of the players when under duress. There was no panic on Saturday as the ball was recycled in front of the try line for long minutes before the England breakthrough came. There were leaders - Farrell foremost among them - visibly barking orders in the closing moments. This psychological component could be telling in Cardiff.
Jones said last summer that his greatest weakness at the helm of Australia was that he "didn't have any tolerance of people. If people weren't as driven as me, I couldn't tolerate them. And I'm still like that to some extent."
He has that un-teachable capacity to put a little fear of God in his players while holding them with him. It means there will be consequences this week for the lethargy of Saturday's first-half performance.
To the notion that Rob Howley might be seen as a mere caretaker for Warren Gatland, as he continues his Lions groundwork, Jones was tetchy.
"It has got nothing to do with me, mate. I don't care. I don't care how they play. That's up to them. They have got a different coaching staff with Rob Howley as head coach, Alex King as attack coach so they may play differently. I don't care how they play, we will cope with it."
There were enough questions about Saturday to build doubt into what happens next. For all the bravado we can expect from Jones this week, he travels over the Severn Bridge with uncertainty, knowing that ghosts lurk.
Independent News Service