Flaming June, eh? This time two years ago, Eddie Jones was more than England’s flavour of the month. His ruthless first-half substitutions, adventurous selection of a stand-off (Owen Farrell) at No 12, resurrection of Chris Robshaw and promotion of Dylan Hartley to be captain were accorded the word “genius” in one rugby periodical. England beat Australia 3-0 on their tour of June 2016 and the red rose was blooming under its Aussie guru.
Fast forward two years to this month and Jones the genius is fighting for breathing space in the thin air of Bloemfontein. A loss in today’s second Test on the tour of South Africa will be terminal to England’s series – hence Jones comparing this re-match after last weekend’s 42-39 reverse in Johannesburg to a “World Cup semi-final – you win, you go forward; you lose, that’s the end of the tournament. It’s a great situation for us, great practice.” And with the last leg in Cape Town next Saturday to come, followed by all three southern-hemisphere powers visiting Twickenham this autumn, a defeat would have Little Englanders and sage judges alike ripping into Jones for the lack of a Test win since the narrow success over Wales at Twickenham in February.
Jones has made minimal changes, yet he remains contentious. Parachuting Brad Shields in as the starting blindside flanker before the New Zealander has played a minute of English club rugby provides the kind of hard-running, hard-to-shake-off “loosie” the Kiwis specialise in. Why it is even necessary when England used to turn out quality flankers for fun is a question for the domestic league, not Jones.
Bath’s No 7 Sam Underhill is among a number of injured tour absentees along with Jack Nowell, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson, Hartley, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. But South Africa are formative in some ways, and five tries to each team last weekend suggested a mutually uncertain state of attacks working smoothly and defences hardly working at all.
The imperative for England, long before they think of when and where to unleash the recalled Danny Cipriani from the bench, is for their forwards to rip into the Springboks without conceding penalties and free-kicks at the rate of the 17 they accumulated seven days ago. The Hollywood dive perpetrated by South Africa’s otherwise excellent scrum-half Faf de Klerk when he was brushed into by Mako Vunipola was a nauseating sight. But it produced a yellow card for Vunipola and a converted try for South Africa, and Vunipola and Maro Itoje among others need to work harder at being cuter in their acts of enforcement.
If Jonny May on the wing for England and the spectacularly bouncy S’busiso Nkosi and Aphiwe Dyantyi for South Africa find the “edges” repeatedly again today, there may be another try-fest in the Free State.
And spare a rand for George Ford’s thoughts. The gentlemanly Leicester stand-off pulls passes from the gods at times, but everyone knows he is a David not a Goliath and when he was given an aerial tour of Ellis Park by the giant lock RG Snyman, he had a right to ask where his back row were. One way to protect your prime distributor is for the loose forwards to wrap under or around from set-pieces. Not just leave him exposed to the rag-doll treatment. Shields will understand that principle, even if his selection instead of Chris Robshaw gives the jingoists another reason to feel antsy.
How precarious is Jones’s position? The Rugby Football Union is already in strife with the budget overrunning in the upgrade of Twickenham. Meanwhile the millions of pounds ploughed into the professional game has doubled since 2015, and that does not look good when the national team and the clubs in Europe are enduring an unproductive few months. A win today would not only stave off a fifth successive Test loss for England. It would also silence a slew of uncomfortable questions – and not only for Jones.