It is not just rampant inflation, Kate Bush and train strikes that are currently causing a sense of deja vu, particularly for England rugby supporters who may feel overwhelmed by the parallels of four years ago
An awful two-win Six Nations campaign followed by a humiliating defeat by the Barbarians with doubts swirling around the identity of the captain leading into a treacherous tour: 2022 feels an awful lot like 2018.
The throwback feel intensified when Eddie Jones included both Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, and scrum-half Danny Care in his 36-man squad to tour Australia. International obituaries had been written for all three men after being purged from past squads by Jones, but the England head coach is nothing if not a pragmatist.
Unlike his predecessor Stuart Lancaster, Jones’ principles are not cast in iron. Go back to 2018 again when Jones selected Danny Cipriani, the cause celebre of that particular day, for the tour to South Africa. The media circus and celebrity trappings associated with Cipriani are anathema to Jones, but he held his nose to pick the fly-half. Cipriani’s performance in the final Test, a 25-10 victory that bookended a series defeat arguably saved Jones’ job. His role was served and that was the last time Cipriani would play for England.
The “line in the sand” that Jones said he was drawing after the Lions tour last summer when the Vunipolas, fly-half George Ford and hooker Jamie George were dropped in one fell swoop have been washed away by the tides of convenience. George was recalled the moment Luke Cowan-Dickie’s fitness faltered, Ford returned during this year’s Six Nations and finally the Vunipolas returned after a storming end to the season with Saracens.
Jones billed last year’s cull as a means of resetting the leadership group, with a pointed message about the hunger of those senior players to reach a third World Cup. “With the third World Cup campaign, my experience tells me that some players want to go to the World Cup but they don’t really have the will to prepare to win the World Cup,” Jones said last October. “We could have the most experienced side at the World Cup but whether they’ve got that will to go that extra 10 per cent and find that discretionary effort… that’s something I’m trying to find out at the moment.”
That question was comprehensively answered by Ford, who misses out through injury, and the Vunipolas in their form for Leicester and Saracens this season. “All have shown the desire to get back to their best,” Jones said on Monday. Unlike Stalin, Jones’ purges are only temporary exiles in the Siberia of the Gallagher Premiership.
Perhaps we in the media are guilty of over-analysing Jones’ statements and searching for deeper meanings behind his selections. Despite the curse of Premiership Player of the Year currently hovering over Ben Earl, Jones generally picks on form.
Billy Vunipola was way off the pace in 2021 when Jones’ hands were partly tied by Covid-19 restrictions. He was rightly dropped. And now he has rightly been recalled off the back of a gargantuan performance in the Premiership final. Jasper Wiese, the Leicester No 8, was the official man of the match but his opposite number was the best player on the pitch.
Even when a grievance is personal, as it was with Care following a disagreement in the 2018 Japan match, Jones is prepared to bury the hatchet, particularly with Ben Youngs sitting out the tour of what will be hard and fast grounds. “The first game we play on an AFL track (in Perth), so it is for thoroughbreds,” Jones said. “It suits Danny. If you had your race form out and it was muddy you’d say don’t back him, but if it is firm get on him.”
After their abject showing against the Barbarians, few would be betting on England right now as they prepare to fly to Australia on Tuesday. But by going back to the future in his selections of the younger Vunipola and Care, Jones is hoping that he can rediscover the combination of pace and power, which have provided the highpoints of his tenure.