Eddie Jones believes England’s 25-21 Six Nations defeat of Wales demonstrated the progress they have made since last autumn’s loss to the same opponents which did so much to eliminate them from the Rugby World Cup.
England had to survive a late fightback to earn a fourth successive win under Jones which took them to the verge of a first Six Nations Championship for five years and potentially to the Grand Slam.
Wales were as dominant in the final 20 minutes as England were the first 60, but having seen his team survive Dan Cole’s late yellow card as the visitors threatened a stunning recovery, Jones insisted they had come some way to redeeming themselves for their World Cup showing under his predecessor Stuart Lancaster.
“We’re four from four,” said Jones, whose team risked undermining their impressive opening hour when conceding converted tries to Wales’ Dan Biggar, George North and Taulupe Faletau.
“England played Wales in the World Cup in September. If you’d said five months afterwards we’d be ahead 25-6 (actually 25-7) after 60 minutes against Wales, then you’d be pretty happy. We won the game 25-21, and we’ve won.
“We’re a new team, we weren’t the old team, we’ve moved on, we played differently, thought differently – we played a bit like the old team in the last 20 minutes.
“What was significant was our first 60 minutes. I thought we played really well, with a lot of precision, were tactically smart, physical. In the last 20 of the game, which is a good learning experience for us – we had to defend with 14 men at the end – but to get a win over Wales…
“Tactically in the last 20 we sat back. Instead of keep attacking them we stopped. When we attacked them they really struggled to deal with us. When we sat back we struggled, so it’s a really good lesson. There’s nothing massive there we have to change, tactically we just have to have more awareness.
“It’s not (a lack of) fitness, it’s more about trying to protect the lead rather than trying to increase the lead. If we’d played with the same intent we did the first 60, we’d have won that game by a lot more.
“It’s all about better decision making. You get better by practising at training and that’s what we’ll do, so we’ll get there.”
The impressive performance of Maro Itoje was particularly significant in that the lock was named man of the match in only his second Test start.
Second row has long been one of the positions in which England have lacked stability, but Jones had already spoken of Itoje’s potential, and asked of his thoughts on the 21-year-old’s performance, said: “I thought he played very well, he worked hard at his game and did a lot of things we’ve asked him to do.
“It was a very good performance from him; him and George Kruis could lock second row down for some time now for England.”
There was also an incident when Wales’ Tom Francis appeared to make contact with Cole’s eye, on which Jones said: “I never comment on referees’ decisions, particularly when we have won a game of rugby. (But) if it was a finger put in the eye then that should be adjudicated.”
For all that the Australian was encouraged, Wales coach Warren Gatland was disappointed with a first-half performance he described as “totally unacceptable”.
Wales were surprisingly lacking in intensity and hunger before the interval and the New Zealander said: “I just can’t explain why we were so flat for those first 40-odd minutes.
“I said to the boys at half-time they needed to show some energy and enthusiasm, and to come up with some answers themselves.
“The way we performed in that first 40 minutes was totally unacceptable at this level. The players have to be honest with themselves, because we prepared well and it’s hard to understand why we looked so tired and lethargic.
“That is so unlike us. But I’m proud the boys didn’t give up and they kept their heads. In the second half we got some impetus and finished strongly and we wonder what could have been.
“England competed hard. We outscored them 3-1 in terms of tries but it was Farrell’s kicks that were the difference. The best team won and I take my hat off to them.”
Gatland also revealed his captain Sam Warburton, who was carried off on a stretcher in the second half after suffering a head injury, was sitting up again in the changing room afterwards but will go through concussion protocol in the coming week,
Gatland added of Francis’ incident with Cole: “I haven’t seen it again. My initial reaction was I didn’t think it looked great.”