Chariot derailed: England's rugby team hits problems
The wheels are coming off the English chariot.
After two years of unprecedented and virtually unstinting success under Eddie Jones, England's rugby team has hit problems just as the 2019 Rugby World Cup is looming into view.
"I always said this year would be the hardest year we'd have," Jones said of the third year in England's World Cup cycle.
He's been proven right.
The English won the last two Six Nations under Jones, one a Grand Slam. After back-to-back losses to Scotland and France over the past two weeks, they are in danger of finishing in fifth place — their lowest position in the tournament since 1983 when it was called the Five Nations.
The English won 24 of their first 25 tests. Now, they are staring at three straight losses, which hasn't happened to them in the Six Nations since 2008.
The home match against Grand Slam-chasing Ireland on Saturday is shaping up to be a crucial one for Jones on his journey with England to the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
It wasn't long ago that most rugby experts were saying England was the team most likely to stop New Zealand being world champion for the third straight time. "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" — England's rugby anthem — was being sung with added gusto around Twickenham.
Frailties have been exposed in recent weeks, though.
This is England's biggest weakness — and Jones knows it.
"It's a sizeable but fixable problem," Jones said on Saturday after the 22-16 loss in France. "We can address it and keep getting better at it, but the reality is that we probably won't get better at it until the World Cup."
In Paris, the English were turned over 11 times, a contributing factor to their massive penalty count of 16. They were demolished at the breakdown in the 25-13 loss to Scotland last month and nothing changed against France.
In both games, Chris Robshaw was England's openside flanker and he's not a natural there, preferring instead to play on the blindside. Jones knows that, too, having criticized England's deployment of Robshaw in that position during the Rugby World Cup when in charge of Japan.
Jones has also said England is struggling at the breakdown because there is a difference in attitudes to the tackle area in international rugby and in England's domestic's Premiership, in which fewer numbers are committed to the ruck.
"Our players are used to playing a certain way and we're finding it hard to change their habits," Jones said. "Again, that's our responsibility and my coaching is not good enough. We can't expect club teams to play international rugby, just as we can't expect to play club rugby."
Against Ireland, England may switch Robshaw back to No. 6 because of an injury to Courtney Lawes. Don Armand, the in-form Exeter flanker, has been called up.
England's problems at the breakdown create other issues, too. Just ask George Ford.
Perhaps more than most flyhalves, Ford needs quick ball to be effective and he's not getting it. England improved against France when Owen Farrell switched from inside center to No. 10 and Ford was taken off in the 60th minute, and Jones may start that way against Ireland.
"That's one of the selection dilemmas we are looking at," Jones said on Monday. "It's been difficult for George because we've been playing off slow ball."
Ford has been such a key player for England under Jones, and his combination with Farrell at No. 12 has given the team more options and creativity. This might be a time for Jones to keep his faith in Ford and work harder in getting the breakdown right.
Jones places a lot of emphasis on his players training at the same intensity as they play, but this could now be affecting them.
"That is part of our DNA," England winger Jonny May said.
It worked for the first two years of the Jones tenure but is the novelty wearing off? In a post-Lions year, are the players simply shattered and the nature of a grueling Premiership campaign catching up with them?
Jones is unlikely to relent, though. In the fallow week in the Six Nations, for example, he arranged for Georgia's fearsome set of forwards to come to London to give his side a working-over in scrummaging practice.
The Australian talks up the need for physicality in the team, and the loss to injury of destructive No. 8 Billy Vunipola ahead of the Six Nations has been a major blow to England.
England has to make sure there is intelligence in its play to go along with it.
England's rise to No. 2 in the rankings led to favorable comparisons with the All Blacks. They have shown to be somewhat premature.
"In 2015, these players were no good; in 2016, they were terrific; in 2017, they were world-beaters; now, after two games, they are no good," Jones said. "They are good players. Teams have ups and downs."
The English were bound to hit a bump in the road after such an amazing 24 months under Jones, which included a series whitewash of Australia Down Under in the summer of 2016 amid a national-record run of 18 straight wins.
"I always thought we would go through a difficult period," Jones said. "We're better off going through it now."