England’s loss to New Zealand feels more like a win – Eddie Jones has got his mojo back

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Eddie Jones took his seat on the dais and grinned the way he does when he knows he has got his audience where he wants them. It has not been like that too often recently but it is now. So he complimented a journalist on her red shoes and gave another one a friendly pat on the back and soaked up the satisfaction of a loss that felt like a victory.

England’s graph has spiked and dived in Jones’ three years in charge and now it is heading back towards the sky. 

The period at the start of this year when England lost five games in succession seems like a world away and the talk that Jones’ position as coach might be in jeopardy has been banished and will not return.

England head coach Eddie Jones can be pleased with his side's performance at Twickenham

England head coach Eddie Jones can be pleased with his side’s performance at Twickenham

In its place has come resurgent confidence, a feeling that England are getting their mojo back at just the right time and that Jones has a wealth of options to choose from. 

England are not where they wanted to be in their development so close to the World Cup — Jones wanted them to be ranked No1 going into the tournament — but they are getting closer. ‘We’re excited about where we are going,’ said Jones.

This was only the second time England have lost at Twickenham under Jones — the first was a 24-15 reverse against Ireland on 17 March — but this was a defeat that rekindled hope that his side might yet be serious contenders at the World Cup in Japan next year. That prospect had dimmed in the spring but it is burning brightly again.

England may have lost against New Zealand but Jones' side had chances to win the game

England may have lost against New Zealand but Jones' side had chances to win the game

England may have lost against New Zealand but Jones’ side had chances to win the game

‘Sometimes the game loves you and sometimes it doesn’t,’ said Jones. ‘If you stay in the fight long enough, it will love you. We are prepared to stay in the game long enough so we will get some love further down the line. Don’t worry about that.’

Jones did not mention the World Cup but that was what he was referring to. There are just over 10 months until England open their campaign in the tournament with a group game against Tonga in Sapporo and this tumultuous game against the best team in the world felt like the moment when England’s build-up got lift-off.

‘It is a really good step forward,’ said Jones. ‘Because you benchmark yourself against New Zealand. We have only been together for three weeks and they have been together for three months. The metrics show that we won the final 20 minutes and we take enormous confidence from that. That is when they normally run away from teams but we did not let that happen.’

The speculation surrounding Jones' future as head coach has now quietened down

The speculation surrounding Jones' future as head coach has now quietened down

The speculation surrounding Jones’ future as head coach has now quietened down

Jones was right about that. England had chances to win the match in the second half. They will rue the two occasions in quick succession that they eschewed the chance to kick for goal and backed themselves to convert line-out drives from close to the All Black line. Neither of those gambles succeeded.

There will also be regrets about a late chance to kick a drop-goal that was squandered when England lost possession. Perhaps it sounds perverse but those missed chances seemed to add to the sense of achievement.

The game was there for England. They had the All Blacks at their mercy and even if they did not quite have the poise to take their chance, Jones believes they will soon.

Those who were lucky enough to be here to watch the contest will take away two images in particular to encourage them that England will be a force in Japan next autumn.

The first was the magnificent driving maul that they rode all the way to the line midway through the first half to rush into a 15-0 lead and which brought all of Twickenham to its feet.

It was quite a sight as the mass of men gathered pace and rumbled towards the line, steamrollering the best team in the world, leaving them powerless to resist England’s momentum as player after player joined the maul and drove over the line for Dylan Hartley to touch down.

Skipper Owen Farrell is not the most emotional of men but even he admitted he got sucked into the drama of it. ‘I don’t know what I was doing there,’ he said.

Sam Underhill had a try controversially ruled out for England against New Zealand

Sam Underhill had a try controversially ruled out for England against New Zealand

Sam Underhill had a try controversially ruled out for England against New Zealand

And the second image? Late in the game, when England had the All Blacks under pressure, Courtney Lawes charged down a kick and Sam Underhill collected it. He ran at Beauden Barrett, New Zealand’s sublime playmaker, as if he were George Best intent on giving a defender twisted blood. He turned him one way and then the other before crashing over the line.

The try was ruled out by the Television Match Official for offside but it was not a sight that will fade easily from England memories.

Underhill, a replacement for the injured Tom Curry, produced a series of shuddering tackles on the All Blacks and had a superb game from start to finish. His contribution was another reason for optimism as England looked forward.

Half way through their autumn internationals, England are in better shape than they could have hoped for.

George Kruis and Maro Itoje were dejected after the game but England are back on track

George Kruis and Maro Itoje were dejected after the game but England are back on track

George Kruis and Maro Itoje were dejected after the game but England are back on track

Last week’s victory over South Africa — a game they had not been expected to win — felt like a turning point in their fortunes and this narrow defeat by the All Blacks confirmed that feeling. They are out of their downward spiral. It no longer feels as if any opponent will be out of their reach at the World Cup.

It seems fitting in those circumstances that Japan should be England’s next opponents at Twickenham. Asked how he would approach the match, Jones said he would give the players two days off and bring them back in on Tuesday. They would have a three-day camp, he said, to mimic the rhythms of the World Cup.

The pace of preparation and the excitement about the tournament is beginning to quicken and Jones had one more idea about how he might recreate this week the conditions of playing in the World Cup host country. ‘Plenty of sushi,’ he said. ‘Sushi and sake.’

 



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