Eddie Jones uttered an earthy summary of where his England side stand after an autumn campaign which brought the results he craved, but not always the performances. ‘Good, but not bloody good,’ he said.
Saturday’s emphatic victory over the gallant Pacific Islanders was another example of gradual problem-solving by the home side, who sealed a three-from-three November clean-sweep.
As was the case against Australia seven days earlier, the Sweet Chariot stalled a few times along the way, before reaching top speed in a thunderous late surge. England keep winning, while delivering in bursts, but the improvements they seek remain frustratingly elusive.
Eddie Jones declared England ‘good, but not bloody good’ after their autumn internationals
They are a long way from dominating opponents in all areas of the game, but they now have the confidence and composure, the fitness and the squad depth to fight their way out of most tight corners. The challenge over the next two years will be to add sufficient layers to avoid many of those corners in the first place.
The final scoreline against Samoa was convincing, but much of what preceded it was not, especially during a third quarter when England were being repeatedly ambushed at the breakdown. In the encounter with the Wallabies they had struggled to win the ball and keep hold of it, and that was a recurring theme on Saturday as the hosts were kept pointless from the 29th minute to the 61st.
But they blazed clear with a flourish late on, to eventually rack up seven tries and show off some slick attacking patterns. The final quarter yielded four tries and 26 points, although Samoa’s outstanding captain, Chris Vui, also struck at the other end.
England thus concluded their 2017 schedule with nine wins from 10 Tests, another Six Nations title, a 2-0 series win in Argentina and a flawless November return, but also much to work on. Jones knows it, which is why he told the BBC: ‘The only reason I came to England was because I got offered the chance to coach a team I thought could be bloody good. At the moment I think we’re good. We’re not bloody good, but that’s what we’re going to become.’
England ended their autumn campaign by beating Samoa 48-14 at Twickenham on Saturday
The end of a calendar year is a natural juncture to take stock and in many ways England are well placed in the build-up to the 2019 World Cup. They have largely maintained their powerful momentum in terms of results, while also broadening the search for Test-class talent.
The ultimate objective is depth equating to three pedigree contenders in all positions and Jones was asked to audit his squad with that target in mind — identifying where the gaps exist.
‘At tighthead we don’t have three guys,’ said the Australian. ‘We don’t know whether (Kyle) Sinckler will come back or what condition he’s going to be in. At loosehead, we are going OK, hooker OK, locks we’re good.
‘At seven, Robbo (Chris Robshaw) showed enough to be the third option there. Eight: (Sam) Simmonds has come up to be third-choice there. Half-backs: we still need to find a third choice. At 10 we are going pretty well, 12, 13… there are not too many (gaps).’
That came after England beat Argentina and Australia, against whom Owen Farrell starred
Jones is right about the priority areas. After Dan Cole, there is a big experience drop-off at tighthead, where Harry Williams and Sinckler need more exposure.
At scrum-half, Richard Wigglesworth provides a safety net if various rookies don’t kick on to provide back-up for Ben Youngs and Danny Care, but the coaches will want to see more of Alex Lozowski and Henry Slade in midfield after their promising work against the Samoans. Anthony Watson needs more game-time at full back, too.
Up front, there is still a need for greater dynamism and pace to go with defensive resilience and set-piece stability.
There is still the perennial search for the precious X factor. That will go on and on. It might be that Harlequins prodigy Marcus Smith forces his way into World Cup contention, but there is another absentee who could galvanise the back line. Manu Tuilagi. Asked if England still have him in mind, Jones said: ‘If he ever gets himself right, then of course we do.
Henry Slade looked promising in the middle against Samoa and ran in one of seven tries
‘All I can remember is him playing at his best against New Zealand. If he is capable of doing that consistently, there’s a chance of being in our squad.’
Even without Tuilagi or another potent, injured centre, Ben Te’o, England have an array of firepower and their task is to harness it into a cohesive unit, capable of dominating rivals over long spells, not in sporadic bursts.
England cannot yet match the All Blacks’ clinical execution of skills under extreme pressure.
Still, further improvements will be sought with world-class figures such as Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola to return and bolster the squad for the Six Nations.
England will go into the annual tournament firmly believing they can claim a third successive title, but that alone won’t be enough for Jones to hail his team as ‘bloody good’.