Eddie Jones insisted the loss to Ireland can be “great” for English rugby, despite the Dublin defeat not only costing England a Six Nations Grand Slam but raising questions once again of the national side’s ability to deliver on the biggest stage.
The 13-9 defeat saw England’s 18-match unbeaten streak come to an end, with the side failing to threaten the opposition try line – let alone actually cross it – for the first time since Jones took over the head coach role. England did still secure a second consecutive Six Nations title though, and Jones insisted on Monday that they still have their eyes on breaking records, with Jones wanting to make history by becoming the first side to win three straight outright Six Nations championships.
But despite Jones admitting that England were “second best” in Saturday’s finale, he insisted that it will prove an important learning curve for the squad as they build towards the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Joking that the scar left on English rugby by this latest setback is not as bad as the one he picked up on his left eyebrow on the eve of the tournament – apparently slipping over in the shower – Jones said: “It’s great for us. It’s not great to lose, but it’s a great learning experience. There’s no scar there at all.
“You know what the All Blacks had to go through to win the World Cup in 2011. They lost the semi-final against us 2003 in Australia, they lost the quarter-final in 2007. They got to the final in 2011 and they had to have a very kind referee to get them home.
“That’s how hard it is for them to win. So to lose the Grand Slam game when we’ve already got the trophy is hardly a scar, it’s a learning experience.”
Having taken 24 hours to break down what went wrong in Dublin – the lineout in particular has been noted by Jones, with England failing to steal a single Irish throw and having their own ball stolen by the supreme Peter O’Mahony and Iain Henderson – Jones once again pushed his desire to take the blame themselves.
“What I do know is that Ireland were too good for us,” he added. “They played extremely well and too good for us on the day. These things happen. Could we have prepared better? Yes, and I’ve identified a few areas that we can change in the future for a particular game like that.
He added: “I can’t expand too much. I don’t think I gave the team the right environment to prepare well and I have to take responsibility for it. I don’t think I created the absolute right mindset for the team and I need to look at what I said and what I didn’t say and improve that for the future.”
The next task for Jones, once he catches up on the lack of sleep he often talks about while the England camp are together, is to plan for the tour of Argentina this summer. Of course, it will not be the full-strength England squad that heads to South America, with a number of players expected to head to New Zealand at the same time with the British and Irish Lions tour – “around 15” according to Jones.
But despite claiming he already has his touring party decided, Jones cannot fully prepare for the three-Test series against the Pumas, given he does not know which players he will have available until Warren Gatland names his Lions touring party on 19 April.
Breaking down his squad, Jones still wants more strength in depth, explaining that he does not yet have the three players in every position model that he wants to build for Japan 2019.
“We don't have three tightheads,” he said. “We've got Dan Cole doing an exceptional job, if he gets injured, we've got [Kyle] Sinckler coming through, we want Paul Hill to come through, and we want one more in that position to come through. The rest of the front row is pretty good, locks we're exceptional.
“Back-row, like we always do we still need to revise the back-row and see how we can improve it. Half-backs we need a third, 10s we're good, 12s we're good, 13s we're good, wingers we're outstanding, fullback we're still looking for other options.”
That squad could well feature a number of Grand Slam winners despite England’s defeat in Dublin, given that the Under-20 squad wrapped up a Six Nations whitewash on the Irish capital the night before the senior side came up short. Asked if he will look to include some of those players in his plans, Jones was open to the possibility.
“Well Argentina presents that opportunity. A few steaks and red wines for young guys,” he jested.
But he would not say if Bath’s Zach Mercer would be one of those, the Under-20s captain that looks destined for a senior call-up sooner or later. Though a number of players will head to New Zealand to face the All Blacks, the likes of Dylan Hartley look like they will miss out on the squad, with Gatland talking up his compatriot, Jamie George, along with Ireland’s Rory Best and Wales hooker Ken Owens.
Yet those left out of the New Zealander’s plans may not be taken to Argentina, with Jones adding that he will judge each player on a ”case-by-case” basis to determine if they need the summer off.
“We're having discussions with a number of players. It's obviously a little bit premature because everyone wants to get selected for the Lions,” he added.
“That gets selected on 19 April, though I'm sure Warren has already picked the squad. Maybe he might give me a whisper. But there are a couple of players I've already had discussions with about if they don't make the Lions whether it's in their interest to have a longer off-season. It'll be a case by case basis and one of the things that keeps coming back is everyone wants to play for England, no one wants to give up their shirt so we'll balance that out.”