Saturday 21 July 2018

Invincibles to invisibles

Eddie Jones' jaded men need forensic overhaul ahead of a huge year, writes Mick Cleary

Stony-faced England head coach Eddie Jones looks on during Saturday’s defeat at Twickenham. Photo: Reuters
Stony-faced England head coach Eddie Jones looks on during Saturday’s defeat at Twickenham. Photo: Reuters

Mick Cleary

From the Invincibles to the Invisibles, England are in danger of disappearing from the radar of World Cup contenders after their startling tumble over the last three games.

They have lacked presence, intelligence, craft, guile, variety and, above all, self-assurance.

Coaches tend to mock the notion of aura, placing their faith in technical and tactical details, but there is no doubt that these days it is Ireland who carry on to the field what England used to wear with such ingrained conviction - a sense of self and a belief in their game. England have been exposed and face an arduous battle to restore credibility in elevated company.

They were never as good as their record (23 wins in 24 Tests ) suggested, and they have to prove now that they are not as poor as their fifth-placed finish would suggest. From Grand Slam (2016) to Grand Slump. Next instalment is a three-Test tour of South Africa, a hard labour gig, perhaps without some of their Lions players.

Balance

Of course, there are some mitigating factors, notably the absence of No  8 Billy Vunipola. One man ought not to make a team, but with Nathan Hughes also in and out through injury, England had no power in their back-row, no balance and no presence at the breakdown or across the gain line.

It is also true that in the build-up to a World Cup, injury issues have far less impact given the European teams are effectively in camp for three months. That period will be a godsend to England, for they look jaded and flat-footed.

After a Lions tour, it is no coincidence that the Celts finished top of the Six Nations pile. They have more rest, more recuperation, more empathy for player needs in their systems.

Eddie Jones has to look within as well as without. There has to be a forensic overhaul of his coaching approach to ensure that the players are not being pushed too hard.

Time and again, he has insisted the players are recording great GPS figures in training, but those peak levels of physical excellence have not been seen where it really matters, out on the field of play.

Jones has banged on about England sessions being above Test-match intensity. Perhaps that equation needs to be flipped; first and foremost play at full tilt in the match itself. There was more bite and urgency in England's approach against Ireland. But it was too little, too late.

Jones will not duck the issues. You might argue he needs to take a look at himself, too, in getting drawn into sideshows such as the "scummy Irish" furore of recent days.

Perhaps, but the bloke has always been spiky and for two years England have played with that sort of abrasive edge.

There has been so much investment in the Jones persona and his intellectual property for good reason. He has brought success and merits some slack.

If anyone doubts the wisdom of that then they should look to Ireland, where two of the RFU's former employees, Stuart Lancaster (Leinster) and Andy Farrell (national defence coach) have had significant input to the upturn in Ireland's fortunes.

At this stage in a World Cup cycle, there has to be a certain faith. It is too late for radical change. Ditch a few players, add a few. Sport does not always obey logic. Joe Schmidt's men won the Six Nations in 2015, yet flunked the World Cup.

Yes, consider adding an attack coach; never cease to demand more rest time; crack down on discipline. And, yes, offer up prayers for a fit Vunipola and a rejuvenated Manu Tuilagi.

Above all, never, ever forget how horrible this Monday morning feels. Do not object to the opprobrium being heaped upon you. Embrace it. Tuck it under the pillow and feel its sharp jabs every night.

England have the potential to come again. But only if they recognise how far they have fallen.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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