This was meant to be the week when English rugby union shifted the narrative. For all involved – players, coaches, even the media – the upcoming tour of Australia has been shimmering on the horizon like an oasis in the outback, offering a chance to look forward rather than endlessly back. It was also a prime opportunity to select a few fresh players with one eye on the Rugby World Cup next year.
Then what happens? On the eve of the squad announcement an England XV go down like a sack of misshapen spuds against a 14-man Barbarians side.
And Eddie Jones reverts to three former stalwarts whom he has been studiously ignoring for ages. Congratulations to Billy and Mako Vunipola and Danny Care but what do their blast-from-the-past recalls say about the consistency of England’s recent selectorial thinking? Of course there are short-term imperatives, with Alex Dombrandt damaging a knee on Friday, Joe Marler omitted and Ben Youngs rested. Maybe the return of the Vunipolas and Care is the smart way ahead, even though they will collectively be 98 by the time the World Cup kicks off. But, if so, the logic in none of them playing a solitary England Test in the past 15 months is mighty hard to discern.
There is an argument that all three should never have been jettisoned in the first place, with Care having been cast out as long ago as November 2018. Age is only a number if people are performing well enough. But yet again the messaging is mixed. It also does not say much for Jones’s faith in those overlooked in favour of his redeployed Dad’s Army platoon.
The most obvious conclusion is that the Barbarians effort was so grim from Jones’s perspective he felt he had no other option. To place it into perspective, the Barbarians had enjoyed such a social buildup week that Amazon Prime’s pitchside pundits even noted on air that the perspiring man of the match, George Kruis, “smelt of Moscow Mules”. Losing against a talented French-dominated side is one thing but getting pumped by more than 50 points in an England jersey by a team who had been in the pub for much of the week is properly embarrassing.
The erstwhile England captain Dylan Hartley did not hold back, suggesting England were “outclassed in every facet” of a game that showed some players “are not at the standard that’s needed”. As the game wore on, Bryan Habana asked who England’s defence coach was. Give or take Marcus Smith’s skillset, Tommy Freeman’s obvious promise, one burst from Joe Cokanasiga and a couple of flashes from Jack Nowell and Jonny May, there was very little to write home about.
Most worrying of all was the collective lack of cohesion. Before anyone goes on about the inbuilt Barbarians advantage of a carefree buildup and playing with smiles on faces, last week England posted social media footage of training-field larks and lighthearted team bonding. The visible difference between the sides on game day was not simply down to that.
It seems to have cost Mark Atkinson, Will Collier, Callum Chick, Will Goodrick-Clarke and Jack Singleton any chance they had of tour selection, while Alfie Barbeary, Ted Hill, Alex Mitchell, Dan Robson and the Newcastle trio of Adam Radwan, Jamie Blamire and George McGuigan have all trained with England in recent weeks only to be ultimately passed over.
There is no sign of the Premiership’s player of the year, Ben Earl, nor his Saracens teammates Elliot Daly and Max Malins. George Ford is injured and so is Kyle Sinckler. A few others have had long, draining seasons. And Jones is even refusing to say who he has picked as captain. Which runs the risk of everyone else concluding that either there is no standout candidate or someone is carrying an injury.
On the flip side 12 representatives of the Premiership finalists last Saturday, Leicester and Saracens, are on board and there are welcome returns for previously limping Lions Jonny Hill, Jack Nowell and Luke Cowan-Dickie.
In the absence of the injured Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade there will be chances for the uncapped Guy Porter and Fraser Dingwall to bring some midfield solidity and young Jack van Poortvliet is definitely a No 9 going places. Freeman is another exciting prospect and Cokanasiga deserves a change in fortunes.
But the reality is that Jones is still searching for a physically dominant Test-quality centre not named Manu and still seems uncertain about his best options at scrum-half and in the front five. There would also be fewer post-Barbarians alarm bells ringing had England finished the Six Nations with a flourish. Or if Australia were not showing some signs of a revival.
If England, consequently, go down under and are comprehensively beaten, the cat really will be back among the antipodean pigeons. Jones can hardly dump another whole set of assistants or blame the media reporting or the lingering effects of the Lions tour. It will simply be down to him and his selected team, with the southern hemisphere’s big three all due at Twickenham in the autumn.
This tour squad is certainly not embarking with the smooth momentum they would have liked. Far worse sides have preceded them and they will not lose 76-0 against the Wallabies next month as happened on the 1998 “Tour of Hell”.
But of all the places in all the world where a stuttering Jones-led England will find precious little sympathy it is in his own great southern land. Never mind the 2023 World Cup, the next few weeks are increasingly pivotal for all concerned.