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Prickly Jones is so witheringly sullen it has become wearying

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England head coach Eddie Jones in conversation with Owen Farrell during yesterday’s captain’s run at Twickenham. Photo: Getty Images

England head coach Eddie Jones in conversation with Owen Farrell during yesterday’s captain’s run at Twickenham. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

England head coach Eddie Jones in conversation with Owen Farrell during yesterday’s captain’s run at Twickenham. Photo: Getty Images

A "silent comedy" is how Eddie Jones describes the default setting of his England camp as his guests from Wales rumble in. If so, he'd be few people's idea of a modern-day Buster Keaton.

These days, extracting rays of sunshine from rugby's fickle funster is like panning for sapphires in a sandpit. The Hampton Suite at Pennyhill Park is seldom a place of joy.

Indeed, to watch the latest matinee performance of the Bagshot Revue was to marvel at how a man of such rapier wit could find so many gratuitous ways to say nothing at all. Was there any temptation to switch Mark Wilson to No 8 for the Wales game? "No."

So, the experiment of using Tom Curry in that role was still considered a success? "Yep."

Did he miss flinging barbs at Warren Gatland? "Not at all, mate."

Did Mako Vunipola take the news of his non-selection well, after inadvertently flying home via Hong Kong, a coronavirus hotspot?

"He understands, mate."

Defensive

Once, these briefings with Jones involved the parry and thrust of robust argument. Today, the experience is likened by regular attendees to a knife fight. Pricklier than an echidna, Jones has retreated into a permanently defensive posture, which has become as wearying to deal with as it must be for him to sustain.

Even the mildest query over selection is treated as a personal affront. Two weeks on from the victory over Ireland, Jones still appeared piqued by the temerity of reporters who had asked why Jonathan Joseph, conventionally an outside centre, was played on the wing. "Anthony Watson has come back in - we've picked a specialist winger," he said. "So, you all must be happy about that."

One possible explanation is that Jones's wariness is Wales-specific. After all, ahead of the same fixture at Twickenham two years ago, the Australian almost earned a ban from ever crossing the Severn Bridge again, having described the principality as a "little s*** place".

Jones later accepted that his remark was inexcusable, although that did not stop him tweaking the tail of Rhys Patchell, predicting that the replacement fly-half would be "under some heat".

This time, Jones spots the dangers of a similar diplomatic faux pas a mile off. Just as there was no attempt to goad Wayne Pivac, Gatland's successor, he resisted any opportunity to rile Dan Biggar, even when asked about the Welsh No 10's vocal protests to officials during the France match. "I'm not making any comments," he grinned.

The irony is that during this tournament Jones has spoken of his responsibility to create theatre around the game. Alas, his own one-man act has since turned into a work of Beckettian bleakness.

At each meeting with journalists, he folds his arms and straps on the armour, offering answers that are at best obtuse, at worst downright disdainful. His suggestion to one female reporter, pre-Ireland, that she had confused him with "another half-Asian" - a lapse for which he has since apologised - missed the mark by a wider margin than one of Johnny Sexton's shanked conversion attempts.

The motives for such behaviour run deeper than any reticence about offending the Welsh. Jones, for reasons best known to himself, has assumed a persecution complex.

Stung by the criticism that followed England's World Cup final defeat, he has reverted to a withering sullenness. There are no longer any off-the-record japes, or any catch-up drinks after training. He approaches every inquisition with an almost palpable mistrust.

Time and again, Jones brushed aside any mention of the strange circumstances around this Wales clash, with the finale in Rome postponed. "You don't have discussions about further down the track," he stonewalled, "because there might not be a 'further down the track' for any of us."

Here, perhaps, lies the rub. There is an air of short-termism around England at this Six Nations, which extends beyond the head coach's refusal to discuss anything besides the next 80 minutes of rugby. It springs from the fact that he has offered no clue as to his own future. Will he stay on for the 2023 World Cup, such is the antagonism?

The media, contrary to what Jones might believe, is not out to oust him. There is simply a hope his old devilish humour returns, and that he does not let the best of himself slip away.

© Daily Telegraph, London

England - E Daly; A Watson, M Tuilagi, O Farrell (capt), J May; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, J George, K Sinckler, M Itoje, G Kruis, C Lawes, M Wilson, T Curry. Reps: L Cowan-Dickie, E Genge, W Stuart, J Launchbury, C Ewels, B Earl, W Heinz, H Slade.

Wales - L Halfpenny; G North, N Tompkins, H Parkes, L Williams; D Biggar, T Williams; R Evans, K Owens, D Lewis, J Ball, AW Jones (capt), R Moriarty, J Tipuric, J Navidi. Reps: R Elias, R Carre, L Brown, A Shingler, T Faletau, R Webb, J Evans, J McNicholl

Ref - B O'Keeffe (New Zealand)

  • England v Wales, Virgin Media One, 4.45

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