Job done. Series won. Crisis averted. Critics silenced — or at least hushed for a while. And yet…as England flew home with some precious metal for the Twickenham cabinet, they will know they still have a long, long way to go.
This was a triumph of grit and spirit, rather than imperious play. This was a transitioning team in a hole, who found a way out with character and commitment and sheer hard graft at the end of another marathon season.
The tourists claimed the new Ella Mobbs Trophy because they showed unity and fight by playing for each other and for the head coach who was in the eye of a storm until victory in Brisbane shifted the mood.
When they lost the series opener in Perth, England went back to their forward-play heritage to stabilise and revive, but the contrast with Ireland’s swashbuckling success in New Zealand was stark. Beating these limited Wallabies represents reaching base camp, ready for a steep climb ahead, to next year’s World Cup.
A new team is supposed to be taking shape around the 10-12 axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, but as yet there is no real evidence of that partnership achieving fluency and cohesion. Australia’s defence was rarely carved apart. There were a few glimpses of attacking potential on Saturday night, but the playmakers themselves know that the creative hub is a work in progress.
Marcus Smith scored a breakaway try in Sydney to aid England to a historic win over Australia
‘It is a brilliant foundation,’ said Smith. ‘With the players we’ve got, we can score loads of tries. We have just scratched the surface.’
England’s defensive efforts were mixed, but they saved their best spell for the very end. In Perth, they collapsed in a heap – conceding three late tries to surrender the first Test, whereas they were much more resolute in protecting a lead in Brisbane.
At the SCG, there were glaring lapses in the first half, but England tightened up to such an extent that their rearguard action in the closing stages will go straight into folklore.
Courtney Lawes was at the heart of that heroic stand and the veteran Northampton lock has emerged with considerable credit. As well as leading from the front, the captain has fostered a positive atmosphere in the England camp. He and Owen Farrell are very different characters, but Jones acclaimed the pair and two other key men for setting the revival tone.
‘Courtney and Owen together have been incredible in the way they’ve led the team,’ said the head coach. ‘Genge and Nowell have been the same. It’s about a group of people leading the team – it’s not one person.
‘Courtney has the “C” next to his name and did a good job, but Owen hasn’t played much Test rugby over the last 12 months and he’s been at his combative best. He’s driven the team.
‘With Courtney’s more laconic style, they’ve created a great fit at the top. Then you’ve got Genge and Jack Nowell adding to that (leadership) too, so I’m really pleased with the way those four have done it. The young guys are looking into the eyes of the senior players and they respond to what the senior players do.’
England earned a heroic series victory over Australia after winning the decisive Test in Sydney
The England pack fronted up impressively after so many months of relentless grind – and despite the loss of Tom Curry, Maro Itoje and Sam Underhill. Billy Vunipola showed in Brisbane that he can be the force of old and Ellis Genge enhanced his status as a heartbeat of the team.
‘He’s a beast,’ said Freddie Steward. ‘Ellis is an absolute monster. Fortunately, I’ve never had to put myself in front of him at that speed. But they have guys like Kerevi – some of the best defenders in the game – and Ellis is just bombing through them. It’s ridiculous. When he gets in that zone and he’s doing that, you know he’s on fire.’
The re-emergence of a formidable English ‘tank’ – rolling maul – was a sign of Richard Cockerill’s impact as forwards coach. With him stoking the fire, an England pack should always be combative, although the set-piece overhaul must continue apace.
Newcomers have added depth and World Cup options. While Steward already has the air of a Test veteran, Jack van Poortvliet is another Tiger who looks at home and justified Jones’ high opinion with his control, composure and spark. Tommy Freeman showed flashes of his pace and class in Sydney and Henry Arundell made a name for himself with a first-touch try on debut as well as several outrageous, long-range training-ground strikes.
Freddie Steward scored one of England’s tries during the pivotal Sydney clash on Saturday
There is plenty for Jones to sift through, and he will have space to do so as job pressure has been alleviated by this series win. He was at pains to emphasise how young his team is, but ‘New England’ also have an older guard, with the return of Billy and Mako Vunipola, Farrell and Nowell. It is a blend of experience and youth which, in time, could turn out to be a potent mix.
The overall impression is of lots of promising parts but not yet much overall clarity. By the autumn they will need to start adding layers and establish a clearer strategic direction.
However, the same could be said about many sides. Ireland and France are flying, but who else? New Zealand are in crisis, the Springboks struggled to dispatch a patched-up Wales, Australia are still vulnerable up front and short of depth in certain areas, Argentina are re-building, while the Welsh and Scots blow hot and cold.
England are in the peloton, jostling for position. The relieved RFU hierarchy have avoided another uncomfortable review process. They will wait and hope and trust Jones to chase down the leaders, when it comes to the oval-ball Tour de France next year.