As any self-respecting rugby fan will have noted over the weekend, England’s progress under Eddie Jones continued with a great 37-21 win over Australia at HQ. Unbeaten since the Aussie coach took charge in January, England have now clocked up a record-equalling 14 straight victories and completed a blemish-free 2016.
Attention now turns to the 2017 Six Nations, where England will hope to replicate the Grand Slam of last season. But, as the wins accumulate and the hype goes into overdrive, the pressure will also go up a notch or three.
Neil, who was at Twickenham on Saturday for one of his regular speaking engagements, dropped by to give us his take on the despatch of the Wallabies and to discuss England’s prospects for the New Year.
In Neil’s view, the side is unrecognisable, compared to that which failed so dismally at 2015’s home Rugby World Cup tournament.
“England in 2016 have been really impressive, looking at where we were this time last year - nearly-zeroes to nearly heroes. We’re not heroes yet as the ambition is to be No.1 in the world and win the next World Cup. For all the great wins, all we’ve done so far is consolidate our second place in the rankings, so we’ll have to wait. But we are on the right trajectory.”
There’s a new steeliness about the squad that, for Backy, is cause for encouragement.
“As we saw on Saturday - and to some extent against the Argentinians when we were down by a man early on - Eddie Jones, his coaching team and the on-field leadership all seem to face down problems and overcome them. The pre-match pressure and expectation was all on England. We were absolutely shell-shocked at the start and poor in defence at the gain line but, even though it took a while, we dug ourselves out of a hole and delivered the win.
We’re improving slowly, maturing and gaining momentum. Hopefully, the boys will have learnt from the difficulties and experiences of late. Now, when they’re under the cosh or down to 14 men, they know how to avoid collapsing under the pressure.”
But against better opposition than Australia, England won’t have anything like the same margin for error.
“That said, it could have been very different. If the TMO decisions had gone the other way, we could easily have been 28 odd points down after 20 minutes on Saturday. We scrambled well and kept the Australians out but we really shouldn’t have put ourselves in that position. We rode our luck, kept our composure and the scoreboard made it look emphatic, but, if you make those mistakes against the All Blacks, you will be 28 points down. And that’s not so easy to come back from.”
Of course, this game wasn’t simply a story of the English making headway and Neil believes Jones is keeping things in perspective.
“For the Australians’ part, probably a year ago they’d have taken those early chances, so maybe that points to them having gone backwards a little. You have to take account of the fact that it’s the end of a long season for the Aussies and that we’re almost at the start of ours in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a show of intent from Eddie when he says we could beat New Zealand, if we played them now. We might well do, given they’ve had a long year, but he also keeps saying we need to get better before we fulfil our potential. That’s the honesty and realism I see around the squad.
The pundits were saying ‘Eddie’s going to give them the hairdryer treatment at halftime’ but that’s just not what you do in elite level sports. The players knew the errors they were making, they didn’t need Jones to point them out. They’ll have just needed an emphasis on composure and better decision-making. We called it TCUP in our time with Sir Clive – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure.
The players all know there are massive improvements to be made but what we do have now is belief and confidence. There’s a great team ethos and the playing philosophy looks ingrained in the players. Both in attack and defence, they’re all on the same page. That said, the lapses in concentration and regular ill-discipline in defence must be eradicated. Attack-wise we must improve man-to-man.”
If improvements need to be made, Eddie Jones’ man management technique is spot on and he’s not afraid to ring the changes. And, for Neil, individual players are benefitting from better a conditioning regime in the camp.
“The biggest areas of progress for me are in mindset and fitness. The players know Eddie Jones can be ruthless and that there’s real strength in depth. They know they have to continue to improve individually or they’ll lose their jersey. They know Eddie’s planning for the long-term as well as looking at the next game, so everyone’s on their toes. There’s huge competition and they’re being challenged massively. They know if they’re not up to scratch, they’ll be dropped.
These guys are unquestionably fitter than they were before. Ben Youngs, for example, wasn’t really fit enough to sustain a full 80 minutes of performance but now he’s putting them in back to back and was, for many people, the player of the autumn. Danny Care’s always pushed him hard and it was difficult at times to tell which was the better scrum-half but Youngs has responded to the pressure from Jones and has established himself. His hard work has given him the consistency he needed to make that nine shirt his own.”
Looking ahead to the Six Nations, Neil is wary of all potential threats but predicts a showdown in Dublin on St Paddy’s Day.
“If England continue in this vein, I see their final game against Ireland as the big decider. There’s a lot of focus on England’s winning run but the Irish could quite easily get to that match undefeated. I think they’ve played tougher opposition than us this autumn and, in my view, they’re edging us at the minute in attack and defence. If both sides get there unscathed, they’ll both have enormous optimism and belief and that last game could be an absolute classic.
But there are no easy games between then and now. It’s an exciting time for Northern Hemisphere rugby at the moment and both England and Ireland will have to beat the French, who are always a threat even when they’re written off, and Scotland, who are showing real signs of resurgence.”
Neil is genuinely excited about English rugby at the moment and sees huge potential in the squad. But he knows the players still need the guidance of their Australian coach to fulfil their great promise.
“All I can say is that, if we keep with the current direction of travel, we’ll give ourselves every chance of bagging a second consecutive Six Nations title and a world record unbeaten run. Eddie Jones seems to know how to bring that to pass.”