Backs against the wall, endless personnel reshuffles, constant talk about things coming good eventually. England are currently 12,000 miles away from Downing Street but their series against Australia is at a not dissimilar crossroads. Lose heavily on Saturday and, as in Westminster, public confidence in those in charge back in London may ebb away rapidly.
Which is why Eddie Jones’s callow backline selection for the allegedly crucial second Test against the Wallabies has raised more than a few eyebrows. Three starting 21-year-olds, a 19-year-old “apprentice” on the bench and a debutant who used to captain the University of Sydney? If England’s absolute priority is to win right here, right now then the team sheet does not obviously reflect it.
Best wishes, of course, to the talented Jack van Poortvliet, Tommy Freeman and Guy Porter on the occasion of their first England starts, but their collective promotion at the expense of more seasoned alternatives only makes sense through the hazy prism of next year’s World Cup. It would also clearly give the management more breathing space if people can be persuaded a major Test series defeat is no big deal because youth development is the primary aim.
Imagine an England cricket captain trying to sell that idea midway through a still-undecided Ashes series in Australia. He would be laughed out of the bottle shop. Of course, there might be future benefits in promoting Freeman now and starting the Leicester pair of Van Poortvliet and Porter ahead of their Harlequins rivals Danny Care and Joe Marchant but, should it result in a fifth straight loss under Jones, the renewed promises of Vegemite tomorrow will wear even thinner.
It must also be sapping the morale of the players to see so many of their friends being steadily discarded. Marchant, Joe Cokanasiga, Harry Randall, Max Malins, Ben Earl … fail to shine relentlessly and the trapdoor abruptly opens. A cynic might wonder if Jones now accepts England will not win the next election – sorry, World Cup – without another overhaul and is sure his job is safe even if this tour ends messily. That theory could yet be tested should the visitors lose the remaining two Tests by sizeable margins but, either way, the England captain, Courtney Lawes, will continue to argue there is little point from a longer-term perspective in England sticking to the status quo and sneaking the odd win here and there.
“We think it’ll open up our potential and we’ll be a better team for it,” stressed Lawes. “We don’t feel this is the right time to be safe. We want to see what we can do as a team, what players will fit best where and try and paint a picture for things moving forward as well. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure we win the series. But at the same time we’ve had the conversation. We’re making these changes for a reason. It’s going to take time and we are going to have to have patience. We’re going to go through ups and downs. But as long as we’re building towards an end product. That is the main thing.”
Lawes, about to win his 100th international cap this weekend, also insists Jones is increasingly allowing the players to take more ownership, as eventually happened during the 2019 World Cup campaign when England reached the final. “It was still driven heavily by Eddie but the players had a lot more say in what we did off the pitch. It shows what a difference it can make when you have a tight-knit team. I think that has helped Eddie see that if you are going to have something that lasts and is genuine it needs to be driven by the players. Otherwise it’s essentially forced on you and you don’t really have a say. You can continue that for a certain amount of time but eventually it catches up on you.”
The ever-honest Lawes deserves a good deal of credit for sharing his squad’s objectives so openly. There is a big difference, though, between injecting fresh blood into a winning side and pitching youngsters into a losing one. Van Poortvliet did not even make the bench for Leicester in last month’s Premiership final; to boss around a seasoned Test pack, despite his debut try last week, is asking a lot of him. Lawes, though, insists the players are behind the continuing changes. “We’re the ones that see the potential in it,” he insists. “If we keep going down this track I wholeheartedly believe that our potential will be up there with the best teams in the world.”
But hold on a moment. Is he really, truly saying that a decent England performance in defeat in Brisbane will outweigh the series result? Yes, says Lawes. “The performance is more important for us. Definitely. Everybody wants to see results now and that’s fine.
“We also understand everyone’s got their opinion. That’s fine. For us I would just say we’re doing our best. We’d absolutely love to win but developing as a team and taking us in the right direction is definitely at the forefront of our minds.”
The Wallabies, already 1-0 up and unbeaten in their last 10 Tests in Brisbane since 2016, must think Christmas has arrived early.