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Under-pressure England boss Eddie Jones has vowed to stick by his midfield partnership of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell despite several World Cup winners calling for an end to the experiment.
Will Greenwood wrote for Telegraph Sport that Jones “has to select one of those two, not both” after England’s 30-28 defeat by Australia in the first Test on Saturday. That opinion was echoed by Lawrence Dallaglio while Sir Clive Woodward, coach of the 2003 England team, says Jones should give the reins to Farrell as the team’s primary playmaker.
Jones, however, has no intention of splitting apart the Smith-Farrell axis for the potentially decisive second Test in Brisbane. “Certainly for the next Test,” Jones said of the pair playing together.
Before Saturday’s defeat, Smith and Farrell had played just one match together, the 32-15 victory against the Wallabies in November in which Farrell would injure his ankle. Jones says that he was encouraged by their collectective performance and has called for patience as they grow their understanding, even in a run of four successive defeats.
“They are one-and-a-half Tests into it so there’s a lot of improvement in that area but I thought there were some opportunities where we were not quite clinical enough to take which they created,” Jones said. “That’s what we need to make sure we work on.
“I’ll go over it again. They’ve had one-and-a-half games together and they’ll be very good together, but it takes time. We’re in the infancy of doing this. It’ll take time.”
Jones has been boosted by lock Jonny Hill escaping a citing for his part in a running battle with Darcy Swain. Hill was sin-binned for yanking the hair of Swain who retaliated with a headbutt for which he was sent off. Yet Hill will face no further action for apparently shoving Swain in the face in a separate incident.
Flanker Tom Curry may be a doubt after not returning for the second half following a head injury assessment.
Jones’ confidence seemed undiminished despite suffering his first loss to Australia as England boss in nine matches. “We will be alright,” Jones said. “We understand what we need to do. They’ll be confident which creates an opportunity for us.
“They will be hard to beat in Brisbane where I hear it is raining and wet and humid. It will be a tough old game up there. It is a hard place to play. We are looking forward to it.”
England have now lost five of their seven matches this year and despite Jones receiving another vote of confidence from the Rugby Football Union after the Six Nations, his position remains under intense scrutiny.
Yet in a three-match series, England have the scope to instantly turn their fortunes around. Second row Maro Itoje was part of the victorious 2016 series here with England, and has been part of two Lions tours, and insists they must come out firing for the second Test.
“It’s about raising the intensity,” Itoje said. “Every three-Test series I played in, the intensity of game two goes up. Game two is one of the crucial games. We need to raise the intensity, narrow our focus, focus on what’s important. We’ll be gunning for game two. In those moments when your back is against the wall the team has to get tighter. We have to narrow our focus, play tough rugby.”
England flew from Perth to Brisbane on Sunday with the coaching staff, needing to address several pressing problems around the breakdown and also their attacking game. However, Itoje is confident Jones will get an immediate handle on the issues that the 14-men Wallabies exposed in the first Test.
“We try to get to the root of the problem, whatever the problem is,” Itoje said. “The coaches will have a look, the players will reflect, we’ll reflect as a group. We try to get to the root of the problem ASAP and Monday, Tuesday, by the end of Tuesday latest but really Monday we want to be focussed on moving forward, game two and what we need to do to move forward. I assume knowing Eddie he’ll want to do it Sunday, Monday, get to the core root of the issues. All heads are turning to Brisbane and what we need to do to put ourselves in the best position.”