Head coach Eddie Jones insists that the Dublin defeat will leave “no scar at all” and that if England were to play Ireland another 10 times, they would win six of them.
The day after the squad broke camp for the first time in eight weeks, Jones was also quick to defend his captain, Dylan Hartley, from any assertion that he might be the first significant change as the team look to move on from their first loss in 19 matches under Jones.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland has suggested that Hartley is in danger of not making the cut for the tour to New Zealand. Jones would not be drawn on any specific Lions consideration but it is clear that he backs Hartley to lead the England team through the rest of the calendar year.
“Dylan does a super job for us and there is no reason why he won’t continue to do a super job,” said Jones. “It is like when Mike Brearley captained the England cricket team. Everyone questioned him, then he won the Ashes [in 1981] and no one questioned him. Dylan is an outstanding captain.
“One game doesn’t affect our perception of people or of the team. One game doesn’t change our plan [for the 2019 Rugby World Cup]. It is too early [for older players to be discarded]. Did you think we would never get defeated? There is no scar there at all. It is great for us, not great to lose, but it is a great learning experience. These sort of things harden you because you learn from them and don’t want them to happen again. As I said to the boys, in a World Cup final you either get a gold medal or a silver medal, and a silver medal doesn’t look too flash. A gold medal does.
“That was the great experience for us on Saturday. I am massively disappointed we lost but as for a learning experience, it was great. It was a winner-takes-all game, it was everything on the table and you had to put your best on the table. So to lose the Grand Slam game when we have already got the trophy is hardly a scar. It is a learning experience.”
Jones will not see this group of players again for any extended length of time – there is a brief training camp in August – until late October, prior to the autumn schedule of Test matches. The Australian expects “15 or so” of his players to make the Lions party. Those not selected will head to Argentina in June for a two-Test series against the Pumas. Even though he would not be drawn on the case for specific individuals such as Hartley being selected, Jones does believe that the Lions have every chance of beating the All Blacks.
“New Zealand are there for the taking,” said Jones. “You have got to play well against them, be smart against them, but with the sort of personnel the Lions could field against them, they could be the sort of team to do that. But you have got to win that first Test. If you don’t, you are out of the series.”
As for England, Jones has already set his sights on the trip to Argentina and beyond. Nothing has altered his planning for the World Cup, with Jones believing that such a campaign breaks down into three distinct blocks: the first two years, the subsequent two years and, finally, the three months prior to and including the tournament itself. There will be new faces on the tour to Argentina with “two England Under-20s, and perhaps one with an asterisk” beside his name likely to be promoted through from the Grand Slam-winning junior team. But Jones will not make any radical alterations to his set-up until at least the year is out. The head coach is happy enough with the depth bar at tighthead prop and full-back, albeit he believes Mike Brown was “brilliant” in Dublin, and is also casting a critical eye on back-row resources.
The Jones project is on course and new targets are being considered.
“The great thing for us is that we have won back-to-back Six Nations but no one has ever won three in a row,” said Jones. “So we are still in a position where we could create a record in the Six Nations. It defines something no one has ever done. Next year is going to be even tougher than this was, and it was tough for us.
“You can always be caught on the day by a side when everything goes right for them. That is what happened with Ireland. They played beautifully, great game plan, executed well. The conditions were almost perfect [for them], the next day the sun came out. Everything was in place and they were too good. We had 43 per cent possession and 45 per cent quality line-out ball. That’s the end of the game.
“I don’t think I gave the team the right environment to prepare well, the absolute right mindset. I’ll have to improve that for the future. But I think back-to-back titles is a fine achievement. We have improved the depth of our squad and, if by the end of 2017 we have improved that depth even more, then I will look back on 2017 as a successful year.”