England stuck in identity crisis and slipping backwards under Eddie Jones

Bouncing back from a disappointing first Test defeat in Australia can occasionally be done. England last managed it in 2010 when, as now, they lost in Perth to leave their head coach Martin Johnson in need of urgent salvation. He responded by relegating his old World Cup winning team-mate, Jonny Wilkinson, to the bench. England sneaked home 21-20 in Sydney a week later, assisted by a simple missed penalty from Matt Giteau late on.

It allowed Johnson some temporary respite but, in retrospect, papered over fissures that reappeared at the subsequent 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Which prompts an uncomfortable question. Would England ultimately benefit more in the longer term from losing this Saturday’s second Test – and with it the series – than from a face-saving win that masks fundamental wider issues?

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A 3-0 series whitewash is probably the only outcome that might jolt the Rugby Football Union out of its ongoing complacency. Steady progress? One of the fittest squads in the world? If so, how come England are finding it increasingly hard to close out games? Back in February they fell away against Scotland at Murrayfield and have now done likewise against two sides – the Barbarians and the Wallabies – who played more than half the game with 14 men.

Why are England still conceding unnecessary penalties and cards when the pressure cranks up? How come opponents manage to raise the tactical tempo, while England struggle to find a second wind or really go at opponents until it is mostly too late? Heartening as it was to watch the gifted Henry Arundell and Jack van Poortvliet collect their well-taken debut tries the fact is that, with one minute of normal time left, England were 30-14 down against a far from vintage Australian side.

Is it entirely coincidental, furthermore, that their most stirring win of the season – by a single point against South Africa at Twickenham in November – was achieved without Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell operating in tandem? While it scarcely helps if England are failing to make sufficient inroads up front or in midfield to produce much quick ball, the jury remains out on the “Smarrell” combination at 10 and 12.

Marcus Smith receives a pass from Owen Farrell.
The combination of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell is still not clicking for England. Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Like fish and kidney pie, or eggs and baked Alaska, their arranged marriage cannot disguise fundamental differences in how they approach the game. One glance across at Samu Kerevi, the clear man of the match, offering a triple threat of gainline-busting speed, power and energy, further emphasised how deep England’s attackers were and how little turbo-thrust they generated.

To say England are caught between two stools is to underplay it: there are now so many different stools that no-one seems entirely sure where they stand. Do England want to be a big, bullying, aggressive side who squeeze out victories or a team known for their pace, sharpness and subtlety? Or both? Or neither? Just over a year out from the 2023 World Cup, they are running out of time to make their minds up.

It is beginning to feel not dissimilar to 2015 when England’s management, desperate for an extra dimension, lobbed Sam Burgess into the mix. That ended messily because of indecision over England’s best midfield combinations and not much has changed.

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What is definitely required is more clarity. How smart is it for Maro Itoje to be screaming so loudly at an early line-out that the exasperated referee threatens to penalise him? Why is Jonny Hill pulling people’s hair? Aggression is all very well but it needs to be controlled. Jones is presiding over a team at odds with itself as much as the opposition.

So what next? Perth is among the most geographically far-flung major cities on earth but Jones will feel even more isolated if England suffer a series whitewash. Just as prime ministers rarely seem to resign nowadays, it is unlikely that Jones will walk away if that grim scenario unfolds.

Go down in an undignified 3-0 heap, however, and his side will have managed just two wins in their last nine games, last month’s Barbarians loss included. Surely the RFU can sense the national team is slipping backwards and that Jones’s magic touch is wearing thinner than an old pair of budgie smugglers.

Perhaps England, along with the other home nations, are not quite good enough and expectations are too high. But glance down the team sheet and it is hard to conclude personnel is England’s main concern. Like a returning boomerang in the outback, it is more a case of past omissions catching up with them. Even if they win in Brisbane it will not mask deeper-seated problems.