England find themselves one match away from the Rugby World Cup and nearly four years into the Eddie Jones project, yet it is important to go back to 2017 to look at the moment when this current side found it had to change its ways.
It all started with an announcement. Jamie Heaslip had been ruled out of the Six Nations finale between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium with a back injury that would end his career, so the stadium announced that in his place would start Peter O’Mahony. The Munster captain tore England’s lineout to shreds, making mincemeat of Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Maro Itoje et al, and gave Ireland the platform they needed to their talented backline to hammer down the defensive door.
It handed Jones his first defeat as England coach, ended their world-record bid for 19 wins in a row and prevented a second consecutive Six Nations Grand Slam.
But it taught Jones a valuable lesson. The root to the kind of backline destruction that Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga inflicted in Saturday’s record 57-15 win at Twickenham lies deep in the engine room. It is why George Kruis is so important to England these days and it is why Jones is so concerned about having lineout-jumping flankers, particularly with the 20-stone Billy Vunipola ensuring he will not be leaving the turf anytime soon.
England are particularly blessed to have a wealth of options at lock, so much so that it is impossible to fit them all into a matchday squad when in form. Add into that the back-row talents of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill - both able jumpers at the set-piece - and the accurate dart-thrower that is Jamie George, and Jones has the rock-solid lineout that he so desired.
On Saturday, England win all 15 of their lineouts, and all 10 of their scrums that included two penalties on their own put-in. But what was most startling was that fact that Ireland missed a third of their 15 lineouts - a startling stat from a side who have long set the standard in the air.
“It's incredibly frustrating whenever the set-piece doesn't go the way you plan. But that's one of the best lineout defences in the world,” acknowledged Ireland captain Rory Best, whose missed throw to Iain Henderson in the second half gave England the attacking chance they needed for Maro Itoje to produce the straw that broke the camel’s back. “We just got within ourselves a little bit, we got a little nervous and they kept coming after us there.”
It’s why when asked after the match how England repeatedly sent their power runners down the throat of the 10-12 channel, Jones was not about to praise his backs.
“We got great set-piece ball today. George Kruis and Maro Itoje are the guys responsible for the backs doing their flash things because unless you get good quality ball like that on a platter it’s impossible for those guys to perform,” he said.
“But it was pleasing to be able to move the ball a bit particularly after the last game where it was an arm-wrestle for 80 minutes and today there was a bit of ball movement. It was a nice way to prepare for the World Cup.”
Add to that a scrum that has been unrivalled by the best Wales could throw at it and the worst Ireland were able to muster, and England’s set-piece looks to be in rude health. It is one of rugby union’s biggest cliches to “learn the lessons” from any result that goes against you, but it cannot be argued that England are learning from the error of their ways. In cannot be forgotten how the beginning of the end played out at the last World Cup, when their mess of a lineout saw Wales secure victory at Twickenham to pave the way for England’s pool stage exit.
And with a Tuilagi wrecking ball in midfield to make the most of the front-foot ball that comes with the set-piece dominance, England may finally have the weapons to challenge on the world’s biggest stage for the first time in a dozen years.