Six Nations title? Check! Grand Slam on the cards? Check! And yet there is a feeling that England haven’t actually achieved anything yet.
Whilst Eddie Jones may be lauded as the great saviour of English rugby, the reality is that so far he has achieved very little as England’s head coach. Not only has Jones only really made use of the same talent pool that was developed by Stuart Lancaster, but the team’s play doesn’t appear to have progressed much, if at all since their dismal exit from the Rugby World Cup.
Now obviously, Jones has claimed the Six Nations title at the first time of asking (something Lancaster failed to achieve in four attempts), however there must be a slightly hollow feeling to it all. Current holders Ireland have been poor by any standard, whilst Italy and France may well have not even bothered turning up this year. Scotland look to have improved from last year, but still have a long way to go.
Wales are the only team to have provided England with any kind of test of their mettle under Jones, and even they were pretty poor for most of the game. The problem is that whilst England under Jones may have had a first taste of success, there must be a slight sour feel to it given the level of competition is well below the standard of anything we have seen in at least the last two years of the tournament.
Had there been a raft of young up and coming players brought through, or an obvious change in style of play that looked someway threatening to the Southern Hemisphere giants, then there may have been a feeling of progress, but as is, it feels a lot like England have been treading water in the Six Nations, whilst all around them have floundered.
This isn’t a criticism of Jones however. He has done exactly what was required – restored confidence in the team, got fans back onside, and claimed some silverware during his first international series as head coach. The problem however is that it is hard to actually benchmark if there has been any improvement in the current England side given that the competition for the most part appear to be well below par.
In many ways, this is perhaps an indication that the job Stuart Lancaster did during his four years in charge was far from as poor as some would have you believe. Yes he may of fallen at the first hurdle during the World Cup, but during his tenure he built squad depth by helping to bring through some extremely talented young players, he just failed to properly piece the jigsaw together.
Jones is now reaping the benefits of the foundations laid out by Lancaster, as can be seen by his selections, and for the large part, how his side plays. There have been some positive changes both in terms of selection on form, and in the confidence instilled in his players, but this is the final 10% rathre than the core 90%.
The reality is that England haven’t really been truly tested under Jones as of yet and so it is hard to judge the progress, if any, that has been made. Given his lack of time with the squad, it would also be unfair to judge Jones on sticking with the tried and tested for the larger part. The real test is now ahead of them however, no matter what happens in Paris this weekend.
Jones will lead his side to his homeland this summer where they face three tests against a much improved Wallabies team. By this point, Jones will have had a significant amount of time with his team, and can therefore begin to be judged on both his selections, and the way his side plays. After the three test tour, fans can then begin to make serious judgements about whether progress has been made since the Lancaster era.
At this stage, it is therefore vital that fans don’t get too far ahead of themselves and suddenly start expecting miracles in Australia because of this year’s Six Nations. It is therefore vital expectations are tempered and fans prepare themselves for a potentially winless summer tour. The Wallabies are already lightyears ahead of where England are at, however if Jones can show some genuine forward progress then there can’t be too many complaints.
At this stage, winning isn’t everything. The nation must bear in mind that the World Cup in 2019 is the ultimate goal, and therefore short-term sacrifices may have to be made to this end. Jones must therefore avoid the temptation to continue with the ‘norm’ in Australia no matter how well the Six Nations has gone. Instead he must challenge his side to adapt to a style of play that can win them big games, whilst remaining unafraid of making big selection decisions that benefit the side in the longer rather than shorter-term.