In last week’s column, I stated that England’s trip to Dublin would be an acid test to assess how far Eddie Jones’ side have come under his “astute management”.
Whilst I predicted that Ireland would be fired up by the atmosphere of a St Patrick’s Day weekend and that England sides in recent times has struggled to overcome emotionally supercharged opposition, I thought this England side would be able to handle that and come away from Dublin with a Grand Slam.
After all, Jones is the expert when it comes to mind games and I thought he would ensure England didn’t roll into the Irish capital anything less than ready to impose themselves.
In the final reckoning, the scoreboard might have been close but England were a distant second at the Aviva Stadium.
The wind might have blown and the rain might have fallen but surely that shouldn’t have meant England were so subdued by the elements as to have allowed themselves to be bullied by a highly motivated Irish side.
For that was what they were. Bullied at the set-piece, bullied at the breakdown and crucially mentally bullied in the coaching battle. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt won the tactical battle and for Jones it is not the first time in this year’s Six Nations that he has lost the thinking game. Remember Italy anyone?
Jones was forced to admit that he hadn’t prepared England very well after the game and that was a surprise. The focus seemed to be about trying to take Irish playmaker Jonny Sexton out of the game rather than getting into the arm wrestle.
Numerous times English players hit Sexton late in what was clearly a pre-match tactic. Did this remove their focus from the process of building their own performance? Only the coach and his players will know.
Ireland targeted the English strength at the set-piece and in Peter O’Mahony they had the “dog” that all wet-weather teams need. In the battle of the gain line, O’Mahony was majestic and had England in awful trouble at the breakdown. He was backed up by the rest of the Irish forwards who threatened to overwhelm their opposite numbers, particularly in a dominant first half.
But that should help England and Jones in the long term. For what is clear is that England have problems in the back row that must be addressed. The lack of an out-and-out openside is hurting England’s progression.
I would be amazed if Sam Underhill doesn’t go on the England tour to Argentina once he becomes available for selection following his return to English club rugby. He has the size, power and most importantly the breakdown ability that England currently lack.
The experiment of playing Maro Itoje on the blindside flank should also come to an abrupt end. Chris Robshaw was missed.
Itoje is a fine lock forward but he is not an international back row forward – certainly not at the moment. Itoje is a very talented player but I think he will look back on his performance in Dublin and recognize he got the balance between playing and “enforcing” badly wrong. He might also reflect that things said in the build-up to big games can provide huge motivation for the opposition.
Jones will also need to be ruthless in selection in that regard. England are strong in the second row with Itoje, Launchbury, Lawes and Kruis all in the selection mix. But four into two doesn’t go when selecting a Test team and he must decide who are the two.
Making those big calls is why the big-name coaches like Jones get paid the big bucks and I think he has shirked that responsibility during this Six Nations.
Elsewhere England also have another big issue to address. Dylan Hartley has had a poor Six Nations as a player. He may have been instrumental in bedding in the Jones mentality over the last 15 months but he is not worth a place and it is overwhelmingly evident that Owen Farrell is this England team’s go-to figure. Those backing Hartley to be a Lions captain are misguided. He is not on the plane for me.
But these issues are still being addressed from a position of strength. Back to back championship wins are safely stored in the Twickenham trophy cabinet and perhaps the defeat will lift some pressure that an 18-match winning run had built up.
The emergence of Elliot Daly as a world-class operator at Test level – he needs to be involved more be it at outside centre of even full-back – is a real positive for Jones and the continual excellence of Farrell, Youngs, Launchbury, Cole, Marler and Watson ensures there is real quality in key areas.
In coaching terms, Jones and England have plenty of “work-ons” and two years out from the next World Cup, they have the time to fix those parts of Eddie’s England that need fine tuning.