England’s runner-up finish at the Six Nations may not spell disaster but, having beaten Ireland in their opening game, losing to Wales and sacrificing a 31-0 lead at home to Scotland have left Eddie Jones with more questions than answers just six months before the World Cup.
What had looked like a marked improvement in performances has been tempered by a disappointing end to a championship that saw Wales claim the Grand Slam.
England led every Six Nations match at half-time but ended up losing one and drawing another. That fragility has already convinced Jones to hire a psychologist to help the group, but there are also a number of selection headaches that the Australian must face up to.
It is hard to fault Jamie George’s performances at hooker during the Six Nations but England’s lack of leadership was apparent in the absence of co-captain Dylan Hartley, particularly in letting leads slip in second halves against Wales and Scotland.
With Hartley injured, Owen Farrell has led the team but there were signs he may not be up to the challenge on his own, while it is also more typical for a team to have a captain in the forwards as they are in closer contact with the referee.
Jones must decide whether to recall hooker Hartley to the starting XV, keep faith in his No10 or select a new forward to share the responsibility with him.
Who partners Itoje?
England lock Maro Itoje could be one of the candidates to become a captain, but while he is among the first names on the team sheet there is a question over who joins him in the second row.
Recently, Saracens colleague George Kruis has tended to be that man, but with Itoje missing most of the Six Nations with injury, other candidates have had a chance to demonstrate their credentials.
Joe Launchbury returned from injury at the end of the championship and he and Courtney Lawes will give Jones a difficult decision in who to pair with Itoje. On current form, it’s likely all four will go to the World Cup.
Ben Youngs became the most capped scrum-half in England’s history on Saturday as he made his 85th appearance, overtaking Danny Care. For all that experience in the jersey, the 29-year-old did not have his best tournament and yet he is still the stand-out choice at No9.
There is little competition for the spot and Jones does not appear to have settled on his preferred back-up, having used four different finishers in the last nine Tests.
Among them have been Care, Richard Wigglesworth and, more recently, Exeter’s Dan Robson and Saracens’ Ben Spencer. Jones will likely take three to Japan but deciding on a second choice to apply some competitive pressure on Youngs could only be a good thing.
The duo of Mark Wilson and Tom Curry were for the most part formidable at No6 and No7 throughout the Six Nations, but Brad Shields proved himself capable of stepping up when played and Sam Underhill, who was exceptional against New Zealand during the autumn, is still to come back from injury.
Jones will likely only take three of the above to the World Cup, with Lawes also able to fill in at flanker if necessary.
As with Lawes, versatility could ensure Wilson’s place on the plane. The Newcastle back-row has often played No8 for his club and had a successful stint there for England in November.
Battle in the backs
Jones looks set on soon-to-be Saracens player Elliot Daly at full-back but must decide whether to partner Manu Tuilagi with the dexterity of Henry Slade or physicality of Ben Te’o at centre.
Against Italy, the head coach experimented with using the physical trio of Tuilagi, Te’o and wing Joe Cokanasiga, but whether that was a one-off or not remains to be seen.
Bath duo Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson will hope to have their own say on matters, while Chris Ashton has thrown himself back into the mix this season, giving Jones plenty to think about.