England stop rot but questions remain for Eddie Jones

England wing Jonny May, left, celebrates his try against South Africa with stand-off Danny Cipriani. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
England wing Jonny May, left, celebrates his try against South Africa with stand-off Danny Cipriani. Picture: David Rogers/Getty Images
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Definitive statements on the back of England’s 25-10 win in Cape Town in Saturday’s dead-rubber final fixture of the three-match tour of South Africa are difficult to make, other than the obvious one that, with huge relief for Eddie Jones’ squad, and a brief dab of quality from Danny Cipriani, they snapped their troubling sequence of five straight Test defeats.

Jones, the England head coach, will deliver a customary tour review to his employers at the Rugby Football Union before he takes a break next month in Japan, where his hosts for a coaching clinic in Oita are continuing to bill him reverentially as “world famous”. Yesterday the Australian, who has been vilified in some parts of the media for conservative selection and taking too much on himself, was praised by Andy Cosslett, the RFU chairman, for his overall performance since taking the England job in December 2015, with the caveat that the position is “under assessment the whole time”.

Jones, pictured, himself professes to have enjoyed the trials of the four months of dodgy results since February when England raced into a 12-0 lead at home to Wales, just about held on to win, then proceeded to lose to Scotland and France away, Ireland at Twickenham, and South Africa – conclusively in terms of the tour series – in Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.

South Africa, by their own admission, came into Cape Town with less motivation than England, and gave their opponents a green light by confining the playmaking, game-shaping Handre Pollard and Willie le Roux to the bench. Unlike Tests one and two, the match was played at sea level not at altitude – which, by the way, will be the case for England now, up to and including next year’s World Cup in Japan. It took until the series was gone for England’s discipline to pass muster, with six penalties conceded on Saturday compared with the 12 and 13 in the two previous Tests. And while scrum-half Ben Youngs was sweetness and light in the Cape Town post-match interview, the time he lost his normal equilibrium was a week earlier, when England had been beaten in the match Jones had likened to a World Cup semi-final.

As for Cipriani, he received a mark of “four out of seven” from Jones and it was true the soon-to-be Gloucester stand-off had a very odd match, on his first start for his country in nine and a half years, that coincided with unhelpfully rainy conditions.

Cipriani made no dominant tackles, kicked one ball away, fluffed two passes and was mostly ignored by scrum-half Youngs and the England forwards when passes were on. Then he pulled out a brilliant play to kill off a Springbok team who were already half-buried. With ten minutes left, and England playing with an advantage after a South African knock-on, Cipriani’s left foot fashioned a long and artful cross-kick between opponents into the in-goal area on the right wing for the lightning-quick Jonny May to race onto. As the injured Jonathan Joseph pointed out in TV analysis, the kick was a bit of a slice, but it suited the sodden conditions and May made the most of it. The 28-year-old flyer has now scored a try in each of England’s last five Tests, and has claims to being the standout man of a tricky tour. May might also point out he has scored similar tries for Leicester this past season on the end of kicks from George Ford, Cipriani’s England stand-off rival.

The England squad for next year’s World Cup can find room for Cipriani, all right. Take the majority of the 23 who featured in Cape Town, and add Ford, Brad Shields, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill, Jack Nowell, Joseph, Anthony Watson, Courtney Lawes and George Kruis, and – give or take a third scrum-half and maybe a returning Dylan Hartley – there is your party for Japan. They can dare to dream Tom Curry has solved the openside-flanker problem, with Underhill and Sam Simmonds in support. But there may be more heartache to come before next summer affords the breathing space to properly rest and focus, and build for the big one.