When England last toured Australia in 2016, head coach Eddie Jones had just led his team to a first Grand Slam in 13 years, reinvigorating a group of players who had been left out of the Rugby World Cup in the group stage a few months earlier. .
On the grass, Jones was decisive. Outside of that, he was full of mischief, hanging around opposite number Michael Cheika.
With his players, the media and the English rugby public, Jones walked on water.
Six years later, the picture looks very different.
There have been highs since 2016, most notably the race to the 2019 World Cup final, but twice in recent seasons Jones’ position has been called into question after poor campaigns in the Six Nations.
Since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, England have played nine away games and lost five.
So what can England fans expect from their three-Test tour? What kind of Australia is lurking? Are the Wallabies on the upswing, or will Jones improve on his perfect 8-0 winning record against his hometown?
|July 2nd: First Test – Optus Stadium, Perth|
|July 9th: Second Test – Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane|
|July 19: Third Test – Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney|
|All matches start at 10:55 BST. Live text commentary will be available on the BBC Sport website and app.|
jones v rennie
Jones’ matchup with Randwick’s former teammate Cheika was an entertaining subplot to the 2016 tour. Jones took every opportunity to foster a siege mentality, take the pressure off her players and get under the skin of the sociable Cheika.
Jones’s antics on that tour are legendary: walking out of a referee meeting after a minute, criticizing the Australian media for their coverage, and inviting NRL great Andrew Johns to train in England among his many tricks.
“I think the Eddie thing in 2016 was a masterstroke,” former Australia flanker Drew Mitchell told the Weekly Rugby Union Podcast.
“From where England was after 2015, what he did was divert all attention away from the players and where they were, and put it on him in front of Michael Cheika.
Fittingly, it was Jones and England who spelled the end of Cheika’s reign with a 40-16 thrashing of the Wallabies in the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals in Oita.
Cheika’s replacement, the less volatile Kiwi Dave Rennie, is unlikely to play the mind games so willingly.
Owen Farrell has been Jones’ go-to man as captain since taking over from Dylan Hartley in 2018, and he did a brilliant job at the World Cup a year later.
However, the Saracens man has struggled to make his usual mark in the Test arena of late, unaided by injuries that curtailed his Autumn 2021 campaign and ruled him out of the Six Nations the following spring.
When in form, Farrell has been Jones’ choice, and he was backed to retain the captaincy in January.
Now the noises are that Farrell is set to return to the ranks, and Courtney Lawes is likely to retain the bracelet she took at the back of the Six Nations.
Former England flanker Ugo Monye says that could get more out of Farrell, as well as fly-half Marcus Smith.
“I want the best of Owen Farrell, because when we get the best of Owen Farrell, he is one of the best in the world,” Monye told Rugby Union Weekly.
“If we get a fully lit Owen Farrell with Marcus Smith, who is on fire right now, I’m very confident what this team can accomplish not just this summer but over the next year and a half.”
But who will lead England at the World Cup in France next year, when Lawes is 34? Will one of Ellis Genge, Tom Curry or Maro Itoje emerge as a long-term patron?
back to the future at 10
While Smith is set to start at fly-half for England, with Farrell at his side at inside centre, Rennie’s options at 10 come down to two familiar figures.
Quade Cooper, 34, and James O’Connor, 31, made their debuts in 2008, when English full-back Freddie Steward was seven years old.
Both have had checkered careers and have done magnificently to force their way back into international contention. Mitchell expects O’Connor to start, and says he is a very different player than the one he fought against the British and Irish Lions in 2013.
“Even though James played 10 against the British and Irish Lions in 2013, I don’t think he was a 10,” added Mitchell.
“I think that was probably indicative of where he was off the field as a player and as a person: he was looking for himself first and then he was trying to serve others, and like 10 it has to be the other way around.”
“It’s been extraordinary to see James and the journey you have been on. He talks about it a lot and very openly. The change that he’s had off the field we’ve seen him transfer to the field, so I think he’s now a bona fide 10.
“But the next generation of 10 needs to come along. They are there but I don’t know if they are necessarily ready to play England yet.”
“I think we could probably get away with Quade and James for the World Cup next year, but certainly for 2027 we need that younger generation to really step up.”
Regardless of who starts at fly-half, the return of standout center Samu Kerevi from Japan is a huge boost for the Wallabies.
Australian rugby: doom or hope?
Always accustomed to fighting for its place in the crowded Australian sporting scene, rugby has endured a torrid times in recent years, both on and off the field.
After a turbulent period, there are signs of hope, with Australia set to host the British and Irish Lions in 2025, followed by two Rugby World Cups; precious lifesavers that could revive the declining rugby nation.
According to Mitchell, Rennie has traveled a path to reconnect the Wallabies with the public.
“We are in quite a tough market with rugby league, AFL and cricket and there have been some disenfranchised supporters for a while now,” he added.
“I think Dave Rennie has done a really good job of connecting the playgroup with the grassroots. He’s a really calm, grounded type of character, he’s got buy-in from the players and there’s a real sense of togetherness and trust.” in the squad.
“But while we have a lot of support around the Wallabies right now, that may change with a series loss.”
Development or delivery?
“Judge me at the World Cup” was a familiar refrain from Clive Woodward when he coached England in the 1990s, suggesting a long-standing approach with the showpiece every four years.
But it seems more than ever that coaches, especially those struggling for results, are talking about “building” and “developing” for France 2023, even though a World Cup is riddled with variables and can only be won by a equipment.
The World Cup was certainly the furthest thing from French fans’ minds as they danced the night away in St Denis following their Grand Slam triumph.
Following the meek 2022 Six Nations, the Rugby Football Union spoke in glowing terms of the team’s “solid progress” in a statement. much ridiculed by fans and experts alike.
With this in mind, it is time for England to deliver consistent results. A series win in Australia would go a long way towards convincing a skeptical English rugby public that ‘Project 2023’ remains firmly on track.