After Ciara and Dennis comes storm Eddie? After England overwhelmed New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final the Six Nations seemed a breeze for them, with four teams under new management and Gregor Townsend’s Scotland looking inwards. But it is England’s head coach who is under the most scrutiny after two rounds.
Jones’s contract ends in 2021, at the midway point between World Cups, and the sight of Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s Japan 2019-winning coach, at Murrayfield last Saturday was another cause for speculation. Jones’s side’s meek opening in Paris after the Australian’s bellicose buildup was followed by a narrow win in appropriately stormy conditions but, as the third round looms, England have home advantage.
France lead the table on points difference from Ireland having both won their first two matches but they have yet to step out of their own backyards. England have recorded the only away victory so far and have home matches with Ireland and Wales before venturing to Rome on the final weekend.
Much is being made of France’s revival under Fabien Galthié and the impact made by Wales’s former defence coach, Shaun Edwards. The only way was up after five years in the championship during which they only once won more matches than they lost, but only Italy have conceded more tries this year than Les Bleus, who are in Cardiff next weekend.
France have not won there since 2010. That was also the last time they recorded a third successive victory in a Six Nations campaign, on their way to a grand slam. Since then England, Ireland and Wales have shared the titles and are the sides with the best away records in that time; France, Scotland and Italy have 11 away wins between them, as many as Ireland and three fewer than Wales and England.
The weekend will show how much France have changed. Wales have not lost at home in the championship since 2017, their winning run of six the longest in the tournament, but they are transitioning from the Warren Gatland era and, under pressure in Dublin last weekend, lost their defensive shape and, apart from their opening try, lacked fluency in attack.
Ireland have changed gear after the Joe Schmidt years when they played a relentless possession game through Conor Murray. After a lacklustre opener against Scotland, they attacked with width against Wales, quick to get the ball away from the breakdown. They targeted the debutant Nick Tompkins in Wales’s midfield, as if their head coach, Andy Farrell, had tapped his son, Owen, for the lowdown on the Saracens centre.
Whereas France have been sustained by moments of individual brilliance, led by their scrum-half Antoine Dupont, rather than a coherent collective effort, and Wales are undermined by injuries behind, Ireland represent the main threat to England and the two sides meet at Twickenham a week on Sunday.
England have lost seven matches at home since the Six Nations started, four times to Ireland, and only one since 2012, when Schmidt’s side won the grand slam two years ago. Jones resisted attempts to blow him off course after the defeat in Paris, persisting with Tom Curry at No 8 and promoting Willi Heinz from the bench to start at scrum-half.
The victory was similar to Jones’s first match in charge, at Murrayfield in 2016, and so was the score, 13-6 compared with 15-9. It was the performance of a team under fire, absorbing pressure before striking on an evening when it was often an advantage not to be in possession. England attempted 162 tackles to their opponents’ 88 and their back row touched the ball nine times compared with Scotland’s 33, but a rearguard action will not sustain them against Ireland.
Does Jones want to continue beyond 2021? Does the RFU want him to? Does it have a succession plan in place? England declined in the year after their other two appearances in a World Cup final in the professional era, but it should have been different this time given the younger average age of a squad that looked to be on the up, never mind the manner of the defeat in the final.
The Saracens affair has affected them, and not because it has impaired squad morale. Some of Jones’s key players, such as Farrell, Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola were directly caught up in the salary-cap breaches. They were unaware rules were being flouted but, when they look at a clubmate such as Ben Earl, what can they feel other than guilt?
England should be able to play their way out of it but for Scotland the wooden spoon will loom if they lose in Italy. They have lost two matches they should have won, adding to the pressure on Gregor Townsend after an early exit from the World Cup. His most mercurial player, Finn Russell, last weekend went public about his lack of faith in the head coach but the full force of storm Finn will be felt if Scotland join the ruins in Rome.
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