RUGBY Football Union director of professional rugby Nigel Melville says the Quilter Autumn Internationals are set to be an “intriguing four weeks” and remains adamant England and under-pressure head coach Eddie Jones will be better for their worrying spell in the doldrums.
The Red Rose are back in action today for the first time since winning the last Test of their South Africa tour in June, a much-needed victory that ended an alarming run of six successive defeats.
It is the in-form Springboks who are the opponents again this afternoon as an inexperienced England – shorn of numerous injured players – start their crucial autumn calendar on the next step towards the 2019 World Cup.
With world champions New Zealand arriving at HQ in a week, and then Japan and Australia on subsequent Saturdays, it will be fascinating to see if the hosts can rediscover the stellar form first engendered by Australian Jones when he took over in 2016.
He lost just one of his first 23 Tests in charge before, suddenly, a calamitous Six Nations saw them finish fifth, followed by that series loss in South Africa.
As his squad return from their training camp in Portugal, Jones’s chances of building on that solitary victory in Cape Town have not been aided by that crippling injury list that leaves them looking decidedly callow today.
But, in an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Melville said: “We beat them down there.
“Obviously they beat us in the series, but we’ve made progress during that period and came away thinking we’re in a good place.
“We’ve had a dip in form last season – it wasn’t a great season – and we do acknowledge that.
“But a lot of lessons have been learned, I think, and they are now looking to say, ‘right, World Cup…’
It’s not the players’ faults but results didn’t go their way. Lessons were learned and I think it will make them better because of that.RFU CEO Nigel Melville
“Look, we tried a lot of different things (last season).
“Complacency is always a problem when you’re winning lots and lots of games ... and sometimes a bit of a short, sharp shock might be good for you; it might re-energize you. At the same time, though, it wasn’t complacency; they were trying a lot of different things.
“They had some key injuries as well, which we know about, but generally they tried some stuff and some worked, some didn’t.
“It’s not the players’ faults, but results didn’t go their way. Lessons were learned and I think it will make them better because of that.”
Former Wallabies chief Jones, of course, is contracted with the RFU until the end of 2021 although there is believed to be a performance-based break clause if they do not reach the World Cup semi-finals.
Granted, Jones has always said their target is to win the tournament in Japan in 12 months.
Certainly, there will be pressure on the 58-year-old to guide his side out of their slump before that. But Yorkshireman Melville – England’s youngest captain when he debuted aged just 23 against Australia in 1984 – insisted: “If you know Eddie he puts more pressure on himself than we could possibly put on him.
“He’s focused on the World Cup.
“There’s a lot of stuff talked outside about if he does this or does that, does do this or doesn’t do that, it’ll change.
“He’s the coach and he’s on his way to the World Cup and let’s get it right – he is a very good coach.
“You don’t win 17 internationals in a row and be a poor coach. He did turn us around from what wasn’t a great World Cup (in 2015) to get us into a good place.
“He has a few bad games and everyone is rounding on him – it’s all bad and it’s all wrong.
“It can’t be all that wrong, but there are fine lines when you come to high-performance rugby. You want to get that back.”
Clearly next week’s game against the All Blacks – the first time England have met them in four years – is the fixture all Red Rose fans will have their eyes set on. This said, Ireland, who face New Zealand in Dublin in a fortnight, are better fancied to cause a shock having usurped England from the World Rugby rankings’ No 2 spot.
Still, former Otley scrum-half Melville said: “It gives you a great measure, doesn’t it? You start to benchmark yourselves now with a view to the World Cup. How close are we? Are we in a good shape? What do we need to do?
“It is going to be a really interesting and intriguing four weeks.
“We play differently (to New Zealand). We’re not the same.
“South Africa beat them recently. You saw what sort of side they are. You do start to see where you can beat them yourselves. But, overall, it’s a great game, a huge chance for players to face the All Blacks at Twickenham.”