Eddie Jones must get his England reshuffle right to rebound in Australia
This week Brisbane recorded its lowest maximum daily temperature for 22 years as a cold snap swept across the usually balmy state of Queensland. It did not last long and, with sunshine and clear blue skies having reappeared ready for the second Test, England can expect a distinctly warm Wallabies welcome inside the atmospheric cauldron of Suncorp Stadium.
Amid all the focus on England’s rotating tombola of a selection policy, the quiet progress Australia have made under Dave Rennie, their calm, well-organised New Zealander coach, has generated rather fewer column inches. Despite a raft of injuries there is now increasing depth in his squad and they are also back at their favourite venue, scene of 10 straight Test wins since 2016.
This also happens to be the 100th Test the Wallabies have played in Brisbane, with the national side set to wear their alternative “First Nations” jersey and sing the national anthem in the Yugambeh language in homage to “Uncle” Lloyd McDermott, one of the first Wallabies to identify as an Aboriginal person. During South Africa’s apartheid era McDermott declined to tour there as an honorary white man and subsequently went on to become Australia’s first Indigenous barrister.
Stir in the Wallabies’ 1-0 series advantage and England’s recent uninspiring form, and the power and the passion, about which the Australian band Midnight Oil once sang, are going to be intense. To keep the best-of-three pot bubbling into the final week, Eddie Jones’s reshuffled side are going to require their best performance of the calendar year.
There are good examples of touring teams who have rebounded strongly having lost the opening Test but plenty more instances where early momentum has been decisive. If it helps to have the fit-again, freakishly strong Taniela Tupou back at tighthead, the Wallabies No 8 Rob Valetini is also a gathering force. Should Samu Kerevi, with the powerful Hunter Paisami alongside him this time, prove as influential as he was in Perth, a long evening may await the white-shirted visitors.
All things are relative, with England’s 76-0 defeat in this same city on the “Tour of Hell” in 1998 an all-time lowlight, but pre-match talk of performance being more important for Jones’s side than this weekend’s outcome has still jarred given the state of this series. Test rugby is not meant to be about next year, next month or even next week. If England do return home empty-handed and suggesting it mattered little, international rugby union will be the loser.
That is not to say Jack van Poortvliet, Tommy Freeman and Guy Porter do not deserve their starting places. The issue is why, if Jones now believes them to be his best long-term options, they were not backed last week when Porter was an unused replacement. Good international teams are built on trust and cohesion as much as individual brilliance and England’s backline is currently about as settled and secure as the Tory frontbench.
The only rational explanation is that Jones is constantly sifting and sieving, with the final third of his World Cup squad uppermost in his mind. If it is possible to sympathise with him over the lack of Kerevi-type midfield dynamos with English passports – or many Tupou equivalents – there are growing mutterings within the game that the red rose management is not maximising all the talent available. If a versatile Porter-style figure is the midfield answer, for example, it makes limited sense to have overlooked Alex Lozowski for the past four years.
The other unmissable elephant in the team room is “Bazball”. What would happen if English rugby decided to copy the Brendon McCullum blueprint and transform everyone’s perceptions? For Jonny Bairstow read Marcus Smith, suddenly backed to the hilt and sent out to play with the extra freedom he enjoys with Harlequins. “That can sometimes happen with a new coach,” sniffed Jones when the subject of English cricket inevitably came up. In his seventh year in charge of England, he is disinclined to reinvent the entire wheel now.
So what is next? Along with the newcomers, the starters who really need to stand up if England are to rebound are Sam Underhill, Ellis Genge and Smith. Last week Underhill was omitted from the 23 entirely. Now Jones is saying he “has the potential to be one of the destructive sevens in the world”. He is certainly a crucial figure if Michael Hooper’s impact around the breakdown is to be diluted, with Genge facing the task of matching Tupou’s dynamism in the scrum and the loose. Smith, playing outside his fourth different starting No 9 in four matches, will be looking on with fingers crossed, praying for quicker ball than in Perth.
In that respect the Irish referee Andrew Brace will be another central cog. England have had their wobbles with Brace in charge, not least when losing to Scotland at Twickenham last year, but he also presided over their narrow win against the Springboks last autumn. He is happy to permit a contest at the breakdown but the margins at Test level have grown slim to the point of invisibility. “It is a difficult time for referees and I’ve got the greatest sympathy for them,” Jones said. “Every decision is being checked and looked at. They have got to adjudicate on 180 contests in a game and we expect them to be right 100% of the time. I think what we’re asking from them is unrealistic.”
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It is a long shot, either way, that England will enjoy the luxury of facing an Australian side reduced to 14 men by a first-half red card in successive weeks. Having opted for a forward-dominated 6-2 bench split, Jones also needs to hope Owen Farrell stays on the pitch given his only backline replacements are Danny Care and the 19-year-old apprentice wizard Henry Arundell.
Then there is the tiredness barrier to overcome, with Courtney Lawes freely admitting the northern hemisphere season has “felt long”. Australia, by contrast, appear slightly fresher, even if they are almost as raw as their opponents in certain positions. The Wallabies will be disappointed, nevertheless, if they do not take a 2-0 series advantage and inflict further pain on Jones and his defence coach Anthony Seibold, both of whom have endured hard times at the respective helms of Queensland and the Brisbane Broncos in the past. They – and England – can only hope this Saturday’s bushtucker trial proves more palatable.