Former Sale Sharks winger and 55-cap England back Mark Cueto, and City A.M.’s Matt Hardy, dissect Eddie Jones’ side across 2021.
It’s been an extraordinary year for rugby. Initially empty stadiums, new found stars and the development of world class squads. For England though, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. So just how has this year gone down for Eddie Jones’ men?
January, February & March
The year really began on 22 January, when Eddie Jones announced his squad for the Six Nations campaign. The side had come off the back of an Autumn Nations Cup triumph in 2020 and were hoping to build on their winning, but slightly drab, game plan.
Beno Obano, Harry Randall and Paolo Odogwu were the uncapped trio included. And among those with international honours, there was a smart mix of experience and youth to give fans much to hope about.
The level of hope fell like a tonne of bricks come the first weekend of February. A devastating 6-11 loss at home to Scotland, their first at Twickenham to the northern rivals since 1983.
An expected 41-18 win against Italy seemingly steadied the ship but England didn’t play to their potential. A 40-24 loss to the Welsh was shrouded in refereeing controversy – but the referee is always right, you know?
Le Crunch came next, the French in London. England edged it 23-20 , but it certainly wasn’t convincing, before a trip to Dublin landed Eddie Jones’ men with nothing – a 32-18 thumping at the hands of Ireland.
England finished the Six Nations in fifth, their joint worst result. Eddie Jones would then face an independent review into the result and his future tenure as England boss.
July & August
The summer series against Canada and the US gave Jones the opportunity to mix up his squad, with many of his experienced players away with the British and Irish Lions. The Australian included 23 new caps into the wider squad and used many of those against his North American opponents.
Lewis Ludlow became captain on his debut, just the sixth Englishman to do so, and the prodigy Marcus Smith was handed the reins at No10. The summer series was a success, as expected, with 113 points scored in two dominant performances – and the youth throughout the squad performed well, considering their warm up ‘A’ game was cancelled due to Covid-19.
As twilight approached on the first weekend of August, the British and Irish Lions had lost their series with South Africa by a test, 2-1. The result was no doubt disappointing for the home nations but with the likes of Smith, who received a shock call up, Courtney Lawes and Sam Simmonds, England had players desperate to win again.
“It’s been an incredible month,” said Mark Cueto, 55-cap former England winger. “Going into the Tonga game, I don’t think Eddie was under pressure but he was getting a lot of criticism.
“People were questioning his squad selection, he had not picked quite a few high profile guys we’re all used to seeing there, like the Vunipolas and Ford. He was under fire.
“England should never have expected anything but a win against Tonga, and they got that [69-3], but the next two games were always going to be massive challenges – regardless of form and current results.
“Whenever England play Australia, South Africa, the big teams, anything can happen, and to get two results out of those fixtures (32-15 against Australia and 27-26 against South Africa), especially the Springboks as it’s the first time they’ve played England since winning the World Cup in 2019, was great for Jones.”
England were without captain Farrell for the matches against Tonga and South Africa, Sale Sharks centre Manu Tuilagi after his early injury against the Boks and a host of forwards, including vice-captain Ellis Genge, who were either injured or isolating with Covid-19.
“It’s always going to be a physical challenge in the autumn,” Cueto, an ambassador to Sportsbreaks.com, continued. “The Boks aren’t too creative, unlike the Australians who can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
“It was a big chance for Marcus Smith to stand up and perform like he has been for Harlequins in the premiership. There was an element of ‘can he do it on the big stage?’ and he’s shown he can. For Jones and England they’ll be over the moon with the results, and most of the performances.
“There were a lot of young players on the pitch. They gave Sale scrum-half Raffi Quirke a lot of game time – they gave him 30-odd minutes playing time when the momentum was maybe swinging towards South Africa and these young guys did well. They’ve announced themselves.”
The world of international rugby may be finished on the pitch for the time being, but the job never sleeps. And come next year Eddie Jones will again face Scotland in the opening fixture of the Six Nations. He has said the preparation with his coaching staff for that opening match at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh starts in early December. The cycle just goes on, and on, and on.
Mark Cueto is an ambassador to Sportsbreaks.com – for more information on their RWC2023 packages, visit https://www.sportsbreaks.com/Rugby/Rugby-World-Cup-2023