“This team is finished now. There will be a new team made.”
The words of England boss Eddie Jones on 3 November 2019, as he picked through the wreckage of the World Cup final defeat by South Africa.
Jones repeated that mantra a few months later after signing a new contract to take the team through to the World Cup in France in 2023.
“I don’t think this group can have another World Cup in them,” he told the BBC after putting pen to paper in April 2020.
So, 16 months on from the World Cup, how much has actually changed?
New players have come through, of course, with Jones capping a whopping 11 rookies since the tournament in Japan.
But the starting XV that lost to Wales last weekend included 12 of the 15 that started the World Cup final; if Sam Underhill, Courtney Lawes and Manu Tuilagi had been fit, Jones could have picked the exact same side.
While fresh faces have come into the squad and onto the bench, breaking into Jones’ inner sanctum – especially in positions such as number eight, scrum-half, fly-half, centre and full-back – has never appeared so difficult.
Now with the Six Nations lost, and two tricky games to come at home to France and in Ireland, where do England go from here?
Discipline, discipline, discipline
“Whenever you lose a game – or lose a couple in an English shirt – questions are going to be asked. And there are a few they need to answer,” 84-cap England scrum-half Danny Care said on the Rugby Union Weekly podcast.
A big issue is discipline, with England whistled off the park in the defeats by Scotland and Wales. Kingpin lock Maro Itoje was most at fault, shipping five penalties on his own in Cardiff.
“I want to know who in that England team, when Maro is giving away five penalties, who is telling him he’s got to relax? Who is questioning him and telling him he’s got to wind his neck in?” asked co-host Ugo Monye, echoing the view of World Cup winner Matt Dawson.
“Maro Itoje has a target on him for referees, 100%. Owen Farrell has a target on him, 100%,” Care added.
“England have to be smarter, and they have to be accountable.”
In certain positions, Jones has struggled to build depth.
At the World Cup, his reliance on scrum-half Ben Youngs was costly, but come March 2021 other nines are still struggling to get a look in.
Harry Randall was selected in the squad to much fanfare, but didn’t get a game before picking up an injury. Dan Robson is still waiting for his first Test start, while Ben Spencer is continually overlooked.
Meanwhile, in Jones’ whole tenure, only one man has started a Test match at fly-half that wasn’t Owen Farrell or George Ford. That was Danny Cipriani in Cape Town in 2018 and he never played for England again.
When it comes to the centres, there is no coincidence every single one of England’s dominant performances in recent years have come with Manu Tuilagi at 12 or 13. Ollie Lawrence was picked to play a similar role, but was dropped after hardly touching the ball in his four caps.
At number eight, Billy Vunipola wears the shirt whether in form or not. Nathan Hughes, Sam Simmonds and Zach Mercer have all come and gone. Alex Dombrandt has trained with the squad without getting near a cap.
At full-back, Mike Brown was Jones’ man, then Elliot Daly. But while Daly struggles for his best form, Max Malins is reduced to short cameos from the bench, despite chat that the Bristol man is pulling up trees in training. George Furbank came and went.
Clearly there is a reason Jones puts such faith in these players; they are world-class and no-one is calling for them to be jettisoned forever.
In fact, a lot of the ‘undroppables’ played well in Cardiff. But using Test matches for players to play their way back into form is a risky strategy, as this Six Nations has proved.
A summer of change?
Jones’ plan – as with the last World Cup cycle – may have been to make his move in a Lions summer.
In an ideal world, his favoured crop would bag one more Six Nations title and then, with these key men unavailable, a low-profile July tour would provide a perfect chance to develop new players away from the pressure-cooker of the championship.
In Argentina four years ago, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill both came through – two players who were outstanding in Japan 2019 and should still be heartbeats of the England team in France 2023.
But everyone has a plan until you’re punched in the face, or more accurately, until you’re mugged at Twickenham by an inspired Scotland.
Now the calls for change will only grow louder, although the options Jones has in terms of movement in and out of his 28-man squad are hindered by coronavirus regulations.
“I thought if England lost at the weekend and Eddie was able to, then you have a free hit with two games to try new players and combinations,” Care said.
“I don’t know if Covid and the bubble will allow that, but [if possible] I would like to see players who are in form, playing well for their clubs, get an opportunity in an English shirt.
“The best fly-half playing in the Premiership at the moment is Marcus Smith and I would like to see Marcus Smith given a chance in the 10 shirt, with Owen Farrell at 12 and Ben Youngs at scrum-half.
“I would also like to see Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt given an opportunity, because they are two guys that can hurt opposition through their attack.
“I don’t see wholesale changes, and I know Eddie won’t do it, but even if he could I don’t think you need to change 10 players.
“I just think it’s two or three to give a fresh impetus and fresh ideas – maybe [Wasps back] Paolo Odogwu gets an opportunity.
“But if you do throw [Harlequins fly-half] Marcus Smith in there, you have to let him play the way he wants to play.”
While the inclusion of the likes of Smith and Simmonds are unlikely given they are neither part of the Six Nations squad nor the shadow squad, the options are there in camp, such as the Bristol pair of Ben Earl and the aforementioned Malins.
“Max Malins is someone who can connect the dots for England,” added Monye. “They have not been as efficient as what you would expect. There are options and opportunities. And for all the doom and gloom it’s important to lift the fog.
“The potential of some of the guys out there is really exciting. But it’s only exciting if you see them in a jersey. You have to give them a go.”