Saturday 21 September 2019

Unsteady Eddie label gets removed for now

Jones: ‘Fates gave him a break which he needed. Photo: PA
Jones: ‘Fates gave him a break which he needed. Photo: PA

Paul Hayward

The siege of Mafeking - sorry, Twickenham - ended after 50 minutes, when England finally broke out. By the end, Eddie Jones was able to leave a stadium throbbing with excitement with his own ticket to Japan almost booked.

If this was a referendum on Jones as England coach after five defeats in six, the players voted for him to stay. Many who were still hardly known outside their Premiership clubs answered the cry to stop the rot. Hope was restored, dignity recovered, and Jones was given his chance to turn on his critics.

He asked: "Why's this got to be the most important game? So you guys (the media) can get me sacked?"

New Zealand are next, and the world champions remain capable of running up a cricket score against Jones' injury-ravaged squad. But already England seem sure to end this series with two wins from four at a minimum. Japan are likely victims in a fortnight. Then, the Australia game that concludes the series looks 50-50.

For this draining, stressful but ultimately uplifting win, England can thank extraordinary South African profligacy and wild lineout throwing, and a missed 45-metre Handre Pollard penalty that shaved the outside of an upright with six minutes left. They might also raise a glass to the TMO and the referee, Angus Gardner, who declined to penalise Owen Farrell for leading with his shoulder in a desperate last-gasp tackle on Andre Esterhuizen. This lucky escape for Farrell killed South Africa's last chance.

The home side survived a first half where they saw negligible amounts of the ball - and nothing of South Africa's 22-metre zone - to come flying back at the Springboks from around the 50th minute. They counter-attacked, played faster, crossed the gain line and planted doubt in South African minds after a first 40 minutes in which the Springboks dominated territory and possession. England were living off Springbok fumbles and lineout throwing from Marx, their hooker, that was more Groucho than Malcolm. In such dark times, people convince themselves that the attacking team will pay for their poor finishing. But as the teams jogged off at the break England contemplated the miracle of South Africa's slender 8-6 lead with no real hope of turning it round.

Yet a different side emerged from the depths of Twickenham's vast stands, with Jonny May and Jack Nowell resolved to answer fire with fire, Zach Mercer adding dynamism through the middle and Farrell increasingly influential. A sweetly clipped 46-metre penalty kick by Elliot Daly put England in front and from there a real barnburner ensued.

Watching rugby, even at this level, you have to be prepared for inexplicable decision-making, and when Brad Shields bore down on South Africa near the touchline with 10 minutes to go, his wild throw inside induced a shout of anger from Chris Ashton, who had been backing him up. Four minutes later, Pollard had his head in his hands after his penalty shaved an upright.

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You know the next line. Fine margins. Farrell's "no-arms tackle" was another. The fates, though, seemed predisposed to give Jones a break, which he needed. Now, Jones can say he has beaten the Springboks twice in-a-row - this time with a team of "under 450 caps", as he emphasised. World Cups, he added, are won by sides with "800 or 900" caps between them.

The sirens weren't imaginary. At stake this autumn is the viability of a management style that relies on hard coaching, yes, but also a confrontational approach that can become wearying to some players. The two big ticks for Jones are that his tactical changes worked while starters and "finishers" fought tenaciously to start this series with a win. South African wastefulness and the leniency shown to Farrell will feature less highly in the debrief.

Jones got straight to work on New Zealand, suggesting the world No 1s would be "drinking tea and eating scones" with renewed confidence of marmalising England. This is an invitation by Jones for the All Blacks to be complacent - and one they are unlikely to accept. By one point England saved themselves from a week of turmoil, an autumn of anxiety, and the "Unsteady Eddie" label was removed, for now.


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