Eddie Jones has been in his element this week. Grinning from ear to ear back at his old stomping ground in Coogee, savouring the sense of familiarity and basking in the nostalgia of it all. His players, meanwhile, have been treated to afternoons off, free to explore – all part of Jones’s decision to empower this “new England” squad, to put his trust in them and to liberate them. Put it all together and it raised the question: has Jones, the notorious taskmaster, softened?
The emphatic answer came three minutes before half-time at the Sydney Cricket Ground when Jones made one of his statement substitutions. Danny Care had endured a torrid first half, typifying the sloppiness that England displayed throughout. Jones had evidently had enough and hooked the veteran scrum-half, introducing Jack van Poortvliet – who could consider himself unfortunate to be dropped in the first place – for a third cap. More discreet coaches might have waited until half-time but Jones has a history of making such changes. More often than not it has the desired effect and on this occasion it was no different, with Van Poortvliet providing the assist for Freddie Steward’s try on the stroke of half-time to give England a lead they scarcely deserved.
That try came from a decision to kick a penalty to the corner, a bold call by the leaders on the field – that very group empowered by Jones’s current approach – and you cannot help but feel the decision to take Care off had played its part, jolting England from their torpor.
It may be premature to write off Care’s England renaissance just yet but he wore the look of a man who understood the significance of his withdrawal as he trudged off the field and he was hardly leading the post-match celebrations. What’s more, Luther Burrell never played for England again after Jones made a similarly early replacement in the first Test against Australia six years ago. England went on to win that match, and the series 3-0. As a result, Jones’s decisiveness was heralded as a masterstroke.
It was a similar story when, in the third Test of that series, Teimana Harrison was replaced after half an hour and though he did play for England again later that year he has not done since. Indeed, Jones did the same thing in the pre-tour match against the Barbarians last month, replacing Will Collier in the first half, although on that occasion England still sunk to a dismal defeat.
It should be noted that Burrell recently gave an interview detailing how difficult it was to cope with such public embarrassment and there is a human cost to Jones giving his players such an obvious kick up the backside. Care will need his teammates to rally around him and he can take some comfort from the fact that while he had struggled in the opening stages, he was far from the only one, with the exceptions of Steward and the impressive Tommy Freeman.
It was an inauspicious start for Care when, inside the first minute, he was charged down by Nick Frost and his was a jittery performance thereafter. It certainly didn’t help to have Michael Hooper breathing down his neck so often but two knock-ons and some inaccurate kicking ultimately did for him. He had been picked, Jones said, because the referee, Paul Williams, is someone who encourages quick ball and that is something upon which Care usually feasts but he was unable to have the desired impact.
Indeed, he gave the impression of someone attempting to make sure of their England future, having been out of the picture for nearly four years before his recall for the Barbarians match and then this tour. Van Poortvliet, so impressive in the second Test win in Brisbane, picked up from where he left off when he came on here, and is rated so highly by Jones that you wondered if the head coach had urged Care to make sure his international comeback was not short-lived. If so, it backfired and it did not help that Nic White – given extra motivation by Jones, who called him “the biggest niggler of all time” beforehand – was far more assured opposite him in the opening exchanges.
As much as you cannot help but feel for Care, it was an effective move by Jones. The ire of England’s performance in Brisbane had been missing here but suddenly, after Steward’s try, they were angry again. Ellis Genge began to carry with fury, and even Marcus Smith had shown how riled he was by Dave Porecki’s attempts to get under his skin. He responded with a fine individual try, which he needed considering it had previously been an average series for him.
Ultimately, it was enough to get England over the line. There remains a number of questions about this side but the togetherness shown to defend as they did, particularly in the final quarter, to ensure a series victory at the end of a gruelling season is a fine platform from which Jones can build.