In many ways England are back where it all started. Looming on Saturday week is a huge game against Wales at Twickenham, a fixture laden with faint apprehension and rich possibility.
The main difference – and it is a significant one – is England are less prone to self-doubt than six months ago. As yet this is not a vintage Six Nations – if the 2016 tournament were a bottle of wine it would have long since been rejected in favour of something less acidic – but it is a distinct change from the vinegar the frontrunners were drinking in October. Three wins out of three, with only one try conceded, suggests a greater sense of clarity and purpose is slowly emerging.
If there remains an asterisk – and the sight of the All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, sitting behind a Chelsea pensioner in the stands symbolised it up perfectly – it is the nagging sense the leading southern hemisphere sides remain comfortably superior in terms of athletic dynamism and passing precision. In the shape of Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, nonetheless, England possess young forwards on the up, not to mention a coach with clear views about how high they can go.
How many others would have predicted six months ago that England would be led against Ireland by Vunipola, the 23-year-old assuming control from Dylan Hartley in the closing minutes. Not only can the 20st No8 now last 80 minutes but he also covered more metres than any other team-mate. Hartley is suitably excited: “He is a freak, isn’t he? Every time he gets the ball something happens,” and the collision on 12 March with his cousin, Wales’s Taulupe Faletau, will be worth the admission money alone.
While Vunipola will never be a Kieran Read-style marauder he is a force of nature who feels an enhanced sense of freedom under Jones. “People aren’t told to act in a certain way. I’m not having a dig at anyone but I can play my game and try to impose myself in any way I can. Eddie’s given me that freedom and that’s something I’ve thrived on so far. I also think I’m a bit fitter than this time last year and able to do what I said I always wanted to do at international level.”
How unfortunate, then, that such an upbeat England news story, buoyed further by Itoje’s auspicious first start, should be overtaken by the post-match spat between the head coach and the assembled Anglo-Irish media.
Jones took up the cudgels on Saturday night by pledging not to speak publicly again until Friday week because of the furore generated by his pre-match comments about the fitness of the Irish fly-half, Jonathan Sexton.
There must be a chance he will rescind his Trappist vows but his interview-room hissy fit – “If I say something now you just criticise it” – was a pity, distracting attention away from the good work he and his coaches have done in refocusing players’ minds and getting them physically sharper.
George Ford is emerging as another beneficiary, with the fly-half already guaranteed to start against Wales after being dropped by the previous regime for the World Cup pool game between the sides. If Sexton remained the more impressive No10 on display on Saturday, Jones is optimistic about Ford’s attempts to play flatter to the gainline in attack.
“Our alignment was so much better,” Jones said. “That is my vision of George. His great skill is to be able to go to the line and then deliver the right pass and we saw signs of that. He was beautiful, mate, poetry in motion. I think that was his best game of this Six Nations and he will get better.”
Leaving aside the same touch of hyperbole Jones so dislikes seeing in print, there is a recurring theme: England’s players are being pushed beyond their comfort zones. If second-half yellow cards for James Haskell and Danny Care suggested discipline could still be improved, England are becoming a more resourceful team. “It’s not me that’s changing the team, it’s the players,” Jones said. “They are changing themselves. All I’m doing is building a house for them to operate in and they’re doing it well.”
The next question is whether they can undermine Wales’s deep defensive foundations. At times, with Vunipola surging forward and Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell fizzing with energy they looked dangerous, with only a series of wasted first-half opportunities keeping Ireland in the game.
Once again, too, the bench made a timely difference, Mike Brown’s decisive try in the final quarter coming less than three minutes after Care and Mako Vunipola had come on. Ben Youngs and Joe Marler, in fairness, were both still on the pitch when Watson touched down England’s first try in the 58th minute, propelling the home side back ahead after Conor Murray had struck in Haskell’s absence.
It was to Ireland’s considerable credit that England still had to graft for their success, a fine corner-flagging tackle by Nowell denying Robbie Henshaw and the industrious Josh van der Flier unluckily denied by the TMO. The defending champions will not be hoisting any silverware this year. For England, love them or hate them, everything is still possible.
England Brown; Watson, Joseph, Farrell (Daly, 66), Nowell; Ford, B Youngs (Care, 59); Marler (M Vunipola, 59), Hartley (capt; George, 71), Cole, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw (Clifford, 71), Haskell (Lawes, 77), B Vunipola.
Tries Watson, Brown. Con Farrell. Pens Farrell 3.
Sin-bin Haskell 45, Care 71.
Ireland R Kearney; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey (Zebo, 63), Earls; Sexton (Madigan, 77), Murray (Reddan, 71); McGrath (Healy, 59), Best (capt; Strauss, 71), Ross (White, 59), Ryan (Dillane, 65), Toner, Stander, (Ruddock, 66), Van der Flier, Heaslip.
Try Murray. Con: Sexton. Pen Sexton.
Referee R Poite (Fr). Attendance 81,826.
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