Fifth place for England. We have said that before, and quite recently, but this time the words will be spat out by those faithful clad in white with just a touch more vitriol. Familiarity breeds contempt, and familiarity with fifth place all the more so. Eddie Jones will be lying low for a while. Unless, ovviamente, he is hauled up before the beak to explain himself – and possibly to pay the ultimate price.
That feels unlikely, despite the vitriol that will no doubt come his way. For all the ups and downs of his reign, the ups have been more regular and every bit as impressive as the lows have been dispiriting. But Jones sets great store in his own judgment, such that his consistent eschewal of some “obvious” selections can come across as wilfully stubborn.
Coaches need a certain level of self-assertion, but when taken to such extremes they better be sure results follow. When they do not, the backlash tends to be, well, vitriolic.
In many ways, this defeat was as concerning as that with which England opened their campaign. Almeno, all the usual excuses regarding an opening match in these disconcerting empty stadiums applied then.
Questa volta, England had the fillip of their win against France to ride. They faced an opposition they have dominated comfortably on the previous four occasions they played them. They even benefited from the latest red card to be waved at a hapless player, this one for Bundee Aki with a quarter of an hour to play. Ireland ended up with 13, when Conor Murray saw yellow.
Much good it did England. Ireland were evidently the more motivated, perhaps because of those recent indignities against England – and others besides. They, like England, finish the tournament with 12 tries and a shrug, but at least it is on an upward curve.
As with Scotland on day one, Ireland’s margin of victory flattered England. Two finely taken tries in the first half, when the contest was real, spoke of a comfortable superiority that England’s two tries in the final quarter could scarcely conceal. The recess will be far more comfortable for Andy Farrell.
His son, Owen, had also left the field by the end, victim of a head clash. But by then it had been clear the partnership with his old mate George Ford, central to so many of England’s best performances under Jones, was misfiring again. The breakdown in England’s attacking game is the most galling aspect of their current travails.
They continue to bewilder since what was almost their annus mirabilis in 2019. That year was launched in some style at this very venue with the opening game of the Six Nations, a resounding 32-20 win against Ireland. For completeness and nerve, that victory must rank alongside their wins against Australia and New Zealand in the World Cup that, oh so briefly, announced England as the best team in the world.
Then again, everyone was taking a turn at the top of the world rankings back then. Even Ireland had a go just before the World Cup, despite an ignominious second defeat of the year to England, this time at Twickenham, in a warm-up for the big event in Japan. That suggests international rugby is a healthy place indeed, with more live contenders at the top than ever, but the decline of Ireland and England from such heights in barely 18 months is a cause for some concern.
If this has been a tournament notable for the brilliance of the French, Welsh and Scottish, they have only fitfully joined the attacking party. In between there have been long periods of incoherence, particularly with England.
The Saracens contingent remain hugely influential, and trusted, but if there has been one finding to take away from this championship, it is that there is no substitute for match fitness. The hypothesis that Saracens’ year in the wilderness might actually benefit their internationals – and therefore England – has been roundly discredited.
Which will have repercussions for the Lions “tour”, in whatever form it takes. Those Saracens earmarked as Lions, who were at times talked about as being the tourists’ first pre-contracted players, able to prepare for it at their leisure, now face a series of matches in the Championship as the only opportunity to play their way into form.
Ma, on international form, some must have played their way out of contention. Jones remained stubbornly loyal to his Saracens core, and it has not worked. Warren Gatland is unlikely to show the same faith.