The results from the autumn series are in and they make for deeply uncomfortable southern hemisphere reading. Not for 19 years have South Africa, New Zealand and Australia all lost on European soil on the same day and Ireland’s victory over Argentina duly completes a clean sweep which should give the Rugby Championship’s finest plenty to ponder over their Christmas holidays.
Maybe the pattern is not entirely a surprise given how long the Springboks, All Blacks and Wallabies have spent away from home in the Covid-affected line of duty. New Zealand have looked distinctly weary in defeat in both Dublin and Paris and when South Africa, playing their 13th Test in barely four months, were asked to perform one last encore at a raucous Twickenham they were ultimately not sharp enough to deliver it.
Then again, there is equally no question that rugby’s northern powerhouses are growing in strength and depth. What price New Zealand, who have not lost back-to-back Tests against European opposition away from home since 1935-36, when they face France in Paris in the opening pool game of the 2023 Rugby World Cup? Would anyone now bet the farm on South Africa turning over the Irish in Pool B? And how much better can England become having cast off the tactical shackles that had slowed any progress under Eddie Jones to a crawl?
It has taken a while but fair play to Jones and his latest assembly line of assistant coaching boffins for finally taking the plunge and freeing up England to play with more purpose and attacking intent. If it was attitude and late resilience that underpinned their thrilling 27-26 victory over the world champions at Twickenham, it is the rising confidence behind the scrum that has been perhaps this autumn’s biggest upside.
Gone, thankfully, is the negative aerial obsession that characterised last winter, replaced by an infectious new mix of “S Club” heaven. Marcus Smith, Henry Slade and Freddie Steward have all been autumnal shooting stars, offering England skill, energy, fresh ideas and important new focal points. Don’t stop moving is also becoming their team’s new unofficial signature tune, as evidenced by the three well-taken tries that ultimately did for the usually impenetrable Boks.
Add in the excellent Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Raffi Quirke and the underused Adam Radwan and there is pop-up danger, flexible thinking and creative pace to burn all over the place. Whether by accident or design – and the absence of Owen Farrell from two of the three autumn Tests cannot be omitted from the end-of-year ledger – Jones has found his best starting fly-half, centre and full-back for the foreseeable future. England appear visibly better balanced as a result.
At this point fans of England – who conceded only one try in three autumn games and have not lost when leading at half-time for two and a half years – will understandably be pressing the palms of both hands tightly together and praying Manu Tuilagi’s hamstrings can be soldered back together to allow him to rejoin the party. If the big man had spent more than eight minutes on the field on Saturday, the chances are the opposition would have enjoyed their fluctuating afternoon even less.
But, equally, consider the damage England could inflict when and if some rumbustious injured forwards – Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Jack Willis, the bullocking young Alfie Barbeary – are able to join the fray with Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds and Jamie George also in full cry. While there were moments of concern in the second half against South Africa for England’s scrum and maul, not to mention a crushingly heavy penalty count, the unquenchable spirit of all involved was impossible to miss.
If it was not quite the most satisfying win over the Springboks of Jones’s career – Japan’s 2015 RWC pool win in Brighton will forever retain that mantle – it did allow the head coach to put further clear water between his squad’s current state and their fifth-placed finish in the 2021 Six Nations. England have just beaten two of the top three ranked sides in the world and their leader is perfectly entitled to seek to airbrush two awkward years – “I never thought we were on the wrong lines” – completely out of the frame.
This week he will be heading to France to check out potential World Cup camps, reassured that his keynote decision to crop the Vunipola brothers and George Ford out of the autumn picture was correct in the context of the 2023 tournament. “It is never pleasant but it is an important and necessary part of the job,” said Jones. “The timing is never right. Sometimes you get criticised for doing it too quickly, sometimes you get criticised for doing it too slowly and sometimes you get criticised for both. There’s never a right or wrong time to do it but you have to back your judgement and then get on with it.”
Whether Jamie Blamire, Bevan Rodd, Trevor Davison, Alex Mitchell, Mark Atkinson and some of England’s other unheralded November participants all make the World Cup squad remains to be seen but for Smith, Steward and Slade, in particular, the past three weeks have been gloriously life-affirming. Jones remains averse to praising Smith excessively – “He’s going to be good, mate, as long as you blokes don’t pour too much poison in his head” – but the evidence is clear to those prepared to look beyond their own parochial rugby kingdoms. The armies of the north are on the march once again.