Curiosity was not a word associated with Eddie Jones side coming into 2018. In fact, any description matching dominant, fearsome and respected would have befitted a team that were marching through the fixture list like a hot knife through butter, with only a minor blip in Dublin staining the white of the 2017 Six Nations Champions.
Unexpectedly, abruptly, and if you're English, painfully, the knife became cold and the butter hardened. England produced their worst Six Nations showing in exactly thirty years. From the outside looking in, the November clash with New Zealand suddenly began to shrink from opportunity to measure their growth and assert dominance, to an exercise in damage limitation.
Fortunately for England, things didn't go that way when the sides met in mid November.
In fact, for all the anticipation of England meeting the All Blacks for the first time in four years, the fixture almost became an afterthought due to how the entire month played out for the home side. The story was neither the billed all or nothing, clash of the titans, it wasn't the "can England cope with the All Blacks" many had predicted after an awful start to 2018. What actually came was an introduction to individuals that have the potential to be the face of English rugby, for the year ahead, at least.
Let's go back to the summer.
Eddie Jones, for the first time in his tenure, was beginning to face criticism. All the noise of only picking players on form, whilst leaving out the likes of white hot Danny Cipriani, went from justifiable because they were winning, to unbelievable when they weren't. The pressure was on the Australian to really consider his selection. Out went the likes of stalwart Joe Marler (retirement), Dan Cole, James Haskell, Mike Brown, and in their place a host of fresh faces with the future in mind. This was a risk for Jones, on the one hand, despite still having a lot to offer, heading into a World Cup year, those players had been around a squad that had began to show signs of age, wear and decline and the worst possible time, replaced with what were essentially rookies. It was a risk, but the type all top coaches are willing to make to get their team heading in the right direction. For the loss of the aforementioned, England gained a new group with the remit of making a name for themselves.
They did just that.
Ben Moon, probably felt as far away from his namesake astronomical body as he did the England squad coming into the Autumns, such has been the reluctance of this England hierarchy to venture South West outside of Slade and Nowell. This time it really paid off though. Moon featured in all four tests, transferring his club form to the international stage effortlessly. Destructive in the set piece, busy around the park, and dependable carrying the ball; "down the coal mine". Thirty-seven tackles is a solid return for a prop making his international bow, especially when the calibre of competition is considered. Moon is one of the last remaining Chiefs from the Championship days, from semi professional rugby to slender defeat by one of the best teams in sporting history, a fantastic achievement, but one that he won't want to rest on. At the age of 29, Moon is in prime position to become a key cog in England’s 2019 Six Nations and World Cup campaigns, and after this solid autumn, he's definitely one to keep an eye on.
Another man who featured in all four tests, ever-present from the start, Mark Wilson announced himself to the Twickenham crowd, and South African defence, with a herculean performance in the opening win. That level didn't drop, not for one second, and whilst Newcastle Falcons fans will tell you he's been alive and well for some time, that win against South Africa felt like the day The King in The North was born. There's no real combination of adjectives that can describe the seismic impact Wilson has had. Not only in his own performances, but his efforts seemed to stoke a fire in his team mates so strong that once England were on the front foot, they weren't stepping back. A staggering 60 (S-I-X-T-Y-!) tackles across the four games is mind bending, when you factor that with immaculate discipline (0 penalties or cards) it really does hit home just how gargantuan Wilson's presence has been on this side. Not that he'd easily go missing, but if Wilson ever is lost, you can find him at your nearest breakdown. Jokes aside, not many players are capable of making Kieran Read look average, the humble bloke from Cumbria did. His biggest advantage is his ability to play across the back row seamlessly, I joked with fellow writer Ali Stokes that Wilson is the best 21 in World Rugby, if my sums are right, I'm yet to see another athlete not only cover those three positions so effectively and dynamically, but consistently stand out, dominate and own the position in the way Wilson does. Another aged 29, with Moon these men have landed in the England group at just the right time, expect both to be in the line up at the Aviva on Feburary 2nd. What a game that promises to be.
Sam Underhill was another man who has put his hand up for selection in 2019. Explosive in defence against New Zealand, demonstrated in the kick chase collision in which a part of Damian McKenzie's soul left his body, only soured by his disallowed try in the dying embers. Underhill is certainty one for the highlight reel, fleeting feet sending Beauden Barrett for a hot dog, which might explain his absent performance in Dublin a week later. What makes Underhill so exciting is whilst he delivers those moments of X Factor, he follows it up with significant value in defence and carries. A staggering 24 hits against New Zealand, whilst also providing those moments of theatre are exactly why Underhill went from on Jones’ radar to on his pitch. Brad Shields, Zach Mercer, soon to be fit again Chris Robshaw, Tom Curry… The list goes on. Eddie Jones went into November with a headache on how to get his team performing again, and now that one’s cleared up, another arrives with trying to pick three out of those standouts. All the best, Eddie!
Negatives were few and far between; the one (or two) of note would be a certain fly half’s defending. Owen Farrell could use some time with Dad. Two tack…I’ll stop myself short, two ‘forms of contact’ that could have had him and his team in hot water. A player who will likely be the named captain at least in part of England’s 2019 campaign, really needs to eradicate that element from his game, now the spotlight is on, Owen would be foolish to think he’ll be third time lucky.
When all is said and done, a one-point swing was the margin that would have delivered a November clean sweep. There are so many more positive elements to England now than there were five weeks ago. The key challenge now is balancing those players’ club commitments with international requirements. It showed in 2019 what mismanagement can lead too and clubs have to be responsible, as do the players, in putting their hands up with such a huge year around the corner. If we have learned anything from England in November, it is that the quality hasn’t gone anywhere, and that the biggest threat they face are, probably, themselves. Be it fatigue or decision-making, Jones has to ensure his men are ready physically and mentally with a testing journey ahead, this November was as good as preparation they could have hoped for.
England’s road to the 2019 Six Nations passes through Dublin and Cardiff. Arise victorious, and the Red Rose will once again have a seat at international rugby’s elite table. Irelands unmitigated success has likely helped England, whereby the pressure now seems significantly less than it was this time last year. Combine lower expectations with the fresh faces of Moon, Wilson, Underhill and others performing like they did in the Autumns, and England once again seem like the team they did under Jones in 2016, a close group with a point to prove. The next year will display just how important November 2018 was to English rugby, and if the level of performance from the month gone is maintained, it may just be the most important month in English rugby’s recent history.