LONDON (Reuters) - The most impressive aspect of England’s November series was the list of players who had nothing to do with it, as gradually, Eddie Jones has developed the strength in depth essential for a realistic tilt at next year’s World Cup.
Saturday’s 37-18 win over Australia followed victories over South Africa and Japan, and an agonising one-point defeat by world champions New Zealand.
It was a productive autumn for England, coming off the back of a poor Six Nations and June series defeat in South Africa, and saw Jones back to his ebullient best.
The success was achieved without Mako and Billy Vunipola, Ellis Genge, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis, Chris Robshaw, Anthony Watson, Tom Curry, Jonathan Joseph and, on Saturday, Jack Nowell and Chris Ashton.
“That’s for starters,” Jones said after name-checking the absentees. “We’ve got great competition. To be the best in the world you’ve got to push hard.”
All national teams operate against a backdrop of injuries and not all of those listed are by any means guaranteed a spot in the starting XV when England return to action with a daunting trip to Ireland to kick off their Six Nations in February.
Some of them, certainly the world-class Vunipola brothers, will undoubtedly give the side a boost, but the impressive displays of some of the new kids on the block have certainly lifted the spirits of England supporters.
Giant Fiji-born winger Joe Cokanasiga scored his second try in as many games on Saturday and his robust style gives Jones a real power option on the wing, where he likes to have “one workhorse and one speedster”.
Kyle Sinckler delivered a man of the match display against Australia, bringing a dynamism rarely seen from an England prop, while Sam Underwood’s battle with Curry seems to be finally filling the open-side flanker void.
Added to those positives, Manu Tuilagi made a tentative return to international action for the last 12 minutes, his first cap since 2016 warmly acclaimed by the home fans who feel the pain of the injury-ravaged centre’s last four years.
“There was a lot of talk about inexperience but we saw it as an opportunity and the way the team’s grown and gelled has been huge,” co-captain Dylan Hartley said.
England had started the year with a shocking fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations then lost the first two tests of their South African tour before picking up a consolation victory in the third against an experimental Springboks team.
However, they actually played some spectacular attacking rugby on that tour and though they were unable to sustain the levels for 80 minutes, Jones said the seeds of recovery had been sown on the high veldt.
“I think we took steps forward in South Africa,” he said after Saturday’s four-try battering that earned a sixth successive win over Australia.
“We’d had a tough Six Nations. We’d got some things wrong in planning, some things wrong in terms of where we were going as a team and we needed to regroup and we did that.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted in terms of winning the series but in terms of the togetherness of the team, how we want to go forward.
“This series was a step forward and the 2019 Six Nations will be another.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by John O'Brien