Imagine if this had been the opening game of a World Cup, rather than the first weekend of the 2016 autumn series. A year ago England were hopeful but slightly uncertain of their best way forward.
Now their confidence is at its highest in years, with 10 straight wins reeled off under Eddie Jones and little sign of a hiatus. Peaking between World Cups, once New Zealand’s trademark, is becoming England’s domain.
It is reaching the point where even moderate performances are starting to yield significant results. Jones was right to give Saturday’s four-try effort over a painfully limited South Africa side only a pass mark but he was equally conscious of the wider ramifications. Between them his three predecessors as the England coach failed to secure a win over South Africa in 12 attempts over a decade. Not only has Jones’s side broken that drought but this was the second-highest number of Red Rose points scored against the Boks in history.
A review of their perfect 10 victories this year also reveals seven have been by a margin of 10 points or more. England are not just winning, they are winning comfortably and scoring freely, even when below their best and missing up to 10 injured squad members. That would suggest two things: they are very astutely coached and possess fast-improving individuals.
The presence of three England players on the world player of the year shortlist – they have had only two nominations in the previous 12 years combined – is further proof. Billy Vunipola grows in stature by the game, as does Owen Farrell. Joe Launchbury deserved his man of the match award and Ben Youngs enjoyed one of his best games in a white shirt. Persuading experienced Test players to aim higher is easier said than done but Jones is consistently making it happen.
Most encouraging of all for the coaching staff is England still have sizeable improvements left in them. Youngs, for example, may have cleverly exploited Pieter-Steph du Toit’s fish-in-a tree impression at flanker and had his tactical kicking compared by Jones to the great Fourie du Preez’s but the Leicester No9 is not yet Aaron Smith when it comes to clearing the ball instantly from the base. Semesa Rokoduguni will surely be given the chance to impress on the wing against his Fiji compatriots and Elliot Daly showed more than enough promise to hint at a fruitful Test career.
Jones, though, is not about to start throwing around confetti caps and selection for Fiji will see no relaxation of intent. “I want people to deserve their opportunity,” he said. “To start for England has to be the proudest thing of their lives and to do that you have to earn it.
“We want to keep improving the team. I’m only going to select people who are better than we have at the moment or, potentially, can be better. If you’re a fly-by-night you’re not going to start for England. I don’t believe in that.”
By that logic the captain, Dylan Hartley, still clearly feeling his way back to full bore, may continue at hooker despite the challenge of Jamie George, who deserves a start at some stage. Vunipola, too, is desperate to get back out on the field again – “I want to play every game. I play rugby to play rugby, not to train” – and believes England can improve substantially. “We put a lot of mental pressure on ourselves,” he said.”We knew the 10-year hoodoo was over us so we never wanted to get above our stations or show South Africa we were complacent. Maybe we went too far the other way and were a bit flat.”
Clearly it did no harm that big Eben Etzebeth never returned after being flattened by the onrushing Vunipola but England, who led 20-9 at half-time and scored four tries through Jonny May, Courtney Lawes, George Ford and Farrell, never remotely looked like losing. At times South Africa’s body language was so downbeat it felt like watching a second-rate tribute act struggling to perform a set of classic covers.
It would also appear the Springboks’ famous defeat by Japan last year, again masterminded by Jones, was less of a blip than England’s World Cup underachievement. Vunipola, either way, can scarcely believe the upturn in fortune. “What I couldn’t have foreseen is us going unbeaten. It’s been such a great environment to be involved in … hopefully we can keep pushing to the goal of us being number one in the world.”
What Jones does do next selectorially, then, will be fascinating with Ben Te’o, Nathan Hughes and Kyle Sinckler all having received a tantalising first sniff of Test rugby off the bench and Daly’s booming long-range penalty goal underlining his value. Alex Goode and Henry Slade are capable of adding something extra behind the scrum but, tactically, England are not about to go all wishy-washy liberal. “We just have to bore then to death,” Jones said.
“You go to Fiji and everyone is throwing 15-metre torpedo passes, flicking the ball through their legs and side-stepping. If they can’t do that they get bored. If they get bored they don’t want to play and, when they do that, you get points against them. We are going to win the game and I want to win it conclusively. It doesn’t mean playing bad rugby – just being smart against them.”
If England keep developing at their current rate it is going to take a good side to beat them.
England Brown (Harlequins); Yarde (Harlequins), Daly (Wasps), Farrell (Saracens), May (Gloucester; Joseph (Bath), 63); Ford (Bath; Te’o (Worcester), 71), Youngs (Leicester; Care (Harlequins), 68); M Vunipola (Saracens; Marler (Harlequins), 64), D Hartley (Northampton, capt; George (Saracens), 56), Cole (Leicester; Sinckler (Harlequins), 72), Launchbury (Wasps), Lawes (Northampton), Robshaw (Harlequins), Wood (Northampton; Hughes (Wasps), 54), Vunipola (Saracens; Attwood (Bath), 71).
Tries May, Lawes, Ford, Farrell. Cons Farrell 4. Pens Farrell 2, Daly.
South Africa Le Roux (Canon Eagles); Combrinck (Lions), Venter (Cheetahs), De Allende (Western Province), Pietersen (Leicester; Mapoe (Lions), 77); Lambie (Sharks; Goosen (Racing 92), 54), Paige (Bulls; De Klerk (Lions), 63); Mtawarira (Sharks; Kitshoff (Bordeaux-Bègles), 56), Strauss (Bulls, capt; Mbonambi (Western Province), 71), Koch (Saracens; Adriaanse (Sharks), 56), Etzebeth (Western Province; Mostert (Lions), 31), De Jager (Bulls; Carr (Western Province), 68), Alberts (Stade Français), Du Toit (Western Province), Whiteley (Lions).
Tries Goosen, Le Roux. Con Combrinck. Pens Lambie 2. Drop goal Lambie.
Referee J Garcès (Fr). Attendance 81,221.
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