Amid the season of decay and decline, England have sprung forth with a new lease of life. These are early days, of course, but after encouraging performances against South Africa and New Zealand – one win, one loss, both determined by the narrowest of margins – it seems Eddie Jones’ men have put their difficult summer firmly behind them.
But as learning curves go, it has proved to be quite the education. This year’s Six Nations Championship saw the side record their worst ever finish in the competition, with the Twickenham defeat by Ireland a galling reminder of the gulf in quality between the two nations.
More misery followed in South Africa where, in spite of their promising starts, England saw themselves come undone in back-to-back Tests. Those defeats – the second of which Jones described as a “horror movie” – were a reminder that England continued to add up to less than the sum of their parts. The post-mortem was blunted by victory in the final Test, with the visitors securing a 25-10 victory in Cape Town - their first in South Africa since 2010 - but it did little to ease the lingering sense that England had been well and truly knocked from their perch.
For Ben Youngs, it was a necessary evil and one that England had to endure for the sake of the side’s long-term development. “On the back of last season, Eddie touched on it really, a lot of that happened because we are evolving, we are learning about ourselves and now we are seeing the evolution of the team,” the scrum-half said. “Had we won those games [in South Africa] would we be where we are now? I can’t answer that but I still feel this team is really in a good position.”
One step back, then, two steps forward. And with the World Cup looming in the distance, this, surely, was the time for Jones’ men to flush out the toxins, re-assess and begin building towards rugby’s ultimate prize.
Indeed, in many ways this process of reconstruction kicked off way back in June in Cape Town. There, England took that all-important first step in stopping the rot. Then, almost five months later, back in the home comforts of south-west London, Jones’ side dug deep to hold out against the returning Springboks and record the unlikeliest of victories. It was a match England had looked set to lose, struggling to keep their heads above water as a sea of green shirts swept back and forth across the Twickenham turf.
But despite the rising sense of inevitability to those opening 40 minutes, England clung on as Jones’ trademark defence returned in all its glory to stave off the visitors.
The clash with New Zealand presented an altogether different challenge. In treacherous conditions, expectations to halt the game’s greatest side were low. But those opening 24 minutes, in which the hosts quickly rushed to a 15-0 lead, reaffirmed the truth that England’s autumnal resurgence was no misnomer. Defeat, when it eventually came, hit the Twickenham masses hard – their sense of injustice heightened by Sam Underhill’s late disallowed try – but it showed how far Jones’ side had come since those opening losses at the start of the year.
Which brings us to the visit by Japan. What can Jones expect to learn from an opposition which, earlier this month, fell victim to a 69-31 hammering from the All Blacks? After the testing demands thrown up by the last two Twickenham Tests, will England feel they can afford to take their foot off the pedal and their eyes off the ball?
“If I was Japan I’d be worried,” Jones warned last weekend. “We want to smash them mate, physically smash them, because I know they’re going to come full of confidence. I’ve heard some of the things they’ve said, they’ve been a bit cheeky, so look out.”
Such confidence carries the risk of complacency. History shows there’s danger in underestimating the Brave Blossoms – as Jones would know full well, having overseen the side’s famous 34-32 victory over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup. As a nation currently ranked 11th in the world, and on the cusp of Tier One status, Japan are not a side to be taken lightly.
From English perspectives, today’s match presents Jones with an opportunity to further assess the depth in his squad. Last weekend’s cohort more than proved their worth, with Underhill notably suggesting he is the long-term option to answer England’s No 7 woes. It’s time now for another diamond in the rough to take centre stage. Much has already been made of Joe Cokanasiga, the latest player to bring a serving of Pacific Island power to this England side. Jones has spoken highly of the youngster, describing him as “something a little bit special”. With just four players retained from the side that lost to New Zealand, Cokanasiga won’t be the only one with a point to prove as attention turns to next summer. The main goal, though, is not to lose sight of this afternoon’s Test and maintain the momentum that has seen this England side rise from the ashes of its Annus horribilis.
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