Honorable defeat could be a turning point in Jones’ leadership search | England rugby union team

So it was not one of the big wins. But it may just stand as one of the great defeats. The match should have been over before it had even really started, cut short by a red card after a reckless tackle from Charlie Ewels on James Ryan.

The crowd didn’t like it and booed long and loud after Mathieu Raynal made the decision. But of course the referee was right. Fans’ frustration exceeded anything they’ve learned in recent years about the long-term consequences of these kinds of crashes. But really, all this knowledge of the risks meant there was no room for forgiveness. Ewels had every chance of going lower. It was a dangerous mistake.

As the remaining England players regrouped, the pressing question for them was what they were going to do now, one man down and the whole game ahead of them.

Some of what England had already planned in training. Courtney Lawes moved to lock down and Jack Nowell, who Eddie Jones has always (and only half-jokingly) said is capable of playing flanker, really packed his bags during scrums. But the issue was bigger than the role models they were going to switch to, who was going to play where and how they were going to fill in the gaps. The match had just become a test of their character, cohesion and leadership.

What are the issues Jones has been worrying about and working on for a year and more, since the 2019 World Cup final against South Africa when, rocked by the early loss of Kyle Sinckler to injury in the lead, England crumbled under pressure from a side that was not only better than them, but also seemed to have a stronger sense of goal and greater strength of character. Jones has spent a lot of time and effort trying to grow the leadership group on this team since then, he’s promoted Lawes, Tom Curry, Ellis Genge and Henry Slade, and even sent Maro Itoje for acting lessons so that he can work on his communication. skills.

All for times like this, when things start to fall apart. England were about to lose, weren’t they? What mattered now was how. It was clear that the match could turn into a rout. Ireland immediately stretched the England defense as they cleared the ball away for their first try. Things got worse when 10 minutes later Curry was injured and was replaced by Alex Dombrandt, barely out of solitary after testing positive for Covid. And then Caelan Doris scored in the corner. Or he seemed to have done.

The TMO rejected it due to a ripple effect on the buildup. But stay. It was a moment that made you want to consult the record books for Ireland’s record win over England (43-13 at Croke Park in 2007) and England’s record loss at Twickenham ( 6-42 against South Africa a year later. ).

Charlie Ewels’ red card in the second minute tipped the game in Ireland’s favour. Photography: David Rogers/Getty Images

With everything against them and any real chance of winning this crucial match already lost, what were England up to? What was there, deep in the guts of this team, that was going to get them through this? What were they going to rely on to run further, attack harder, and get up off the ground much faster?

The answer was the same as it always has been in this game. The team, and their love for each other. Jones explained how he wants to develop their cohesion. He even sent them bowling in the week to help them bond. Well, they needed it all the way now, Jones’ old England and his new England had to come together, finally, and fast.

Would you believe it? They did it. They looked at each other and there, deep inside, they found the stores of urgency and desperation they needed. Doris’ disallowed try was a turning point, as if England felt like they had finally gotten a break from fate.

After that they dragged themselves into the game, yard by yard, tackle by tackle, scrum by scrum, they fought so hard that for the middle 40 minutes you would never have known they were a man to Earth. They dominated the scrum, fought hard on the breakdown, even opened up Ireland with a few scythe shards. Marcus Smith withdrew his penalties and somehow, with 20 minutes to play, the scores were tied at 15-15.

The balance then shifted. England, exhausted, finally escaped as the Irish raced in the final tries which put them out of sight. But in a week, a month, a year, long after the final score was forgotten, this could well be a game they consider a turning point in their development.

Jones called it a “base game”, an example of the “spirit, determination, problem-solving ability” they need. They will need much more of the same if they are to take next week’s test in Paris, when they will be underdogs again. But then, on the evidence of this match, that’s how they like it.

Jones spoke of the emotional energy South Africa brought to the World Cup final. I asked him last year if he still understood what he could use to motivate his England players in a similar way. “I wish I had,” he told me, “but we’re still looking for it.” I wonder if he learned a bit more that Saturday as they played some of their best rugby with the odds against them. There’s a reason he always talks about the opposition.

Amanda J. Marsh