It’s not just rampant inflation, Kate Bush and train strikes that are causing a sense of déjà vu, particularly for England rugby fans who may feel overwhelmed by the parallels of four years ago.
A terrible two-win Six Nations campaign followed by a humiliating defeat for the Barbarians with doubts revolving around the captain’s identity leading to a treacherous tour: 2022 feels a lot like 2018.
The sense of throwback intensified when Eddie Jones included the two Vunipola brothers Billy and Mako and scrum midfielder Danny Care in his 36-man team for a tour of Australia. International obituaries have been written for all three men after being purged from previous teams by Jones, but the England manager is nothing but a pragmatist.
Unlike his predecessor Stuart Lancaster, Jones’ principles are not cast in iron. Go back to 2018 again, when Jones selected Danny Cipriani, the cause celebre of that particular day, for the South Africa tour. The media circus and celebrity trappings associated with Cipriani are anathema to Jones, but he held his nose to catch half the fly. Cipriani’s performance in the final test, a 25-10 win that marked a series defeat, undoubtedly saved Jones’ job. His role was fulfilled and this was the last time Cipriani would play for England.
The “line in the sand” that Jones said he was drawing after the Lions tour last summer, when the Vunipolas, George Ford and prostitute Jamie George were taken down in one fell swoop, has been washed away by the tides of convenience. George was remembered the moment Luke Cowan-Dickie’s physical form faltered, Ford returned during this year’s Six Nations, and finally, the Vunipolas returned after a stormy season finale with the Saracens.
Jones called last year’s cull a means of redefining the leadership group, with a direct message about the hunger of these senior players to reach a third World Cup. “With the third World Cup campaign, my experience tells me that some players want to go to the World Cup, but they really don’t feel like preparing to win the World Cup,” Jones said last October. “We could have the most experienced team at the World Cup, but whether they are willing to spend 10% more and find that discretionary effort… that’s something I’m trying to figure out right now.”
That question was answered comprehensively by Ford, who misses through injury, and the Vunipolas on their way to Leicester and Saracens this season. “Everyone has shown a desire to get back to their best,” Jones said Monday. Unlike Stalin, Jones’ purges are only temporary exiles in Siberia from the Gallagher Premiership.
Perhaps we in the media are guilty of over-analyzing Jones’ statements and seeking deeper meanings behind his choices. Despite the Premiership Player of the Year curse currently hanging over Ben Earl, Jones usually picks form.
Billy Vunipola was way off the beat in 2021 when Jones’ hands were partially tied by Covid-19 restrictions. He was rightly discarded. And now he has rightly been recalled after a gigantic performance in the Premiership final. Jasper Wiese, Leicester’s No 8, was the official man of the match, but his opposite number was the best player on the field.
Even when a grievance is personal, as it was with Care following a falling out in the 2018 Japan match, Jones is prepared to bury the hatchet, particularly with Ben Youngs out of the tour for what will be difficult and fast terrain. “The first game we played on an AFL track (in Perth), so it’s for thoroughbreds,” Jones said. “That suits Danny. If you had your running form and it was muddy, you’d say don’t support it, but if you’re firm, take it.”
After their abject display against the barbarians, few would be betting on England right now as they prepare to fly to Australia on Tuesday. But, looking back to the future in his selections of the young Vunipola and Care, Jones hopes to be able to rediscover the combination of pace and power that provided the high points of his tenure.