Eddie Jones insists he will continue to challenge convention after releasing his England players from the obligations of their “archaic” jersey numbers.
Australia were dispatched 32-15 at Twickenham on Saturday to maintain the winning start to Jones’ ‘New England’ project, although it took until the 74th minute to extinguish the resistance of a dogged Wallabies side.
A feature of the Cook Cup clash was players operating out of position with Manu Tuilagi, Henry Slade and Freddie Steward frequently relocating to different parts of the back line.
Tuilagi popped up at outside centre rather than wing, Slade patrolled the backfield despite starting at 13 and Steward often took Tuilagi’s place out wide rather than perform his full-back duties.
And the shape shifting extended to the playmaking axis of fly-half Marcus Smith and inside centre Owen Farrell as Farrell repeatedly functioned as first receiver.
“We were always going to mix and match but unfortunately we’ve got to put fixed numbers on their backs,” Jones said.
“I’d prefer in rugby if we went to the basketball system where players could pick a number at the start of the year and that’s their number.
“Even if you put them in their traditional numbers it’s very rare that 12 passes to a 13 who passes to the wingers.
“The combinations are all different and the game has become a lot more fluid and transitional.
“As you saw against Australia, there was a strong set-piece contest and then a lot of transitional play. Numbers are fairly archaic.”
England raced out of the starting blocks in the second of this autumn’s three matches with Farrell and Smith combining beautifully to send Steward sprinting over, but the match became an arm-wrestle and their attack suffered as a result.
Steward was the star act as the 6’5” full-back performed more like a Test veteran than a 20-year-old who was winning his fourth cap and facing top tier opposition for the first time.
“Steward has a good head on him and he wants to improve. He’s able to communicate with the players around him and he’s got good awareness of where the ball is and where his support players are,” Jones said.
“He’s brave in the air and I haven’t seen an England full-back like him since Mike Brown. He’s courageous in the air like Mike Brown. He claims every ball and he’s only a young kid.”
England have injury concerns over Farrell and Jamie George for the climax to the autumn against South Africa on Saturday and are also considering whether to call up additional front row cover.
Farrell hobbled off late on with an ankle problem and George was unable to appear for the second half because of a knee issue.
Bevan Rodd, 21, made a distinguished debut at loosehead prop but Joe Marler does not leave self-isolation until Thursday and Ellis Genge misses the Springboks match because of Covid.
South Africa will provide a greater scrummaging threat than Australia and Trevor Davison, who is primarily a tighthead, is the only other option in the position currently in the squad.
England’s last meeting with the Springboks was in the 2019 World Cup final when they were conclusively beaten, but Jones rejects revenge as a motivation.
“That’s a nice media line, but they’re a different team now and we’re a different team. They’re the world champions, we’re not. It’s going to be an important Test between two very good teams,” Jones said.
“We want to finish off Autumn well. It’s the final game of the autumn so we’re looking at like it’s a final. We’re going to have to take them on and we’ll have to play differently to beat them.”
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