LONDON (Reuters) - If it had been suggested to Eddie Jones at the start of the Six Nations that only two players would occupy the same position in all five games, the Australian, with 23 wins from 24 games at that point, might have raised a quizzical eyebrow.
What his reaction would have been to the prospect of England’s title defence ending with them finishing fifth, on the back of their worst display since before any of the current squad were born, does not bear thinking about.
But those are the realities for England, who played the gracious host to Ireland’s grand slam party on Saturday as they lost 24-15 — their first home defeat under Jones and first at Twickenham in the Six Nations since 2012.
Jones had reacted to defeat by France in the previous round by making 10 changes, seven of them in personnel, to face Ireland. That meant that only prop Mako Vunipola and lock Maro Itoje started all five games in the same position.
Owen Farrell and Chris Robshaw were also in the five starting sides, but their changing positions underlined Jones’s struggle to seemingly nail down exactly what he wanted.
He ditched the Farrell-George Ford dual playmaker plan to little effect for the Ireland game with England actually looking their brightest in the final quarter when the pair were reunited after Ford came off the bench.
Robshaw, a man described by Jones in 2015 as a shirt number “six-and-a- half”, spent the first four games on the open-side flank before moving back to six on Saturday.
Admittedly, Jones had to do some pretty desperate back-row juggling in the face of a raft of injuries but the balance has never looked right and merely served to underline how much he depends on the injured Billy Vunipola’s ball-carrying skills.
Nothing much went well on Saturday without anything being awful but, coming after poor displays in defeat by Scotland and France, Jones has some serious thinking to do.
“It’s been an enormously beneficial, if disappointing, tournament,” he countered on Saturday.
“In these three games we’ve learned about ourselves and it’s part of the process of being a better team. Unless you fix the problems, they catch up with you at the big tournaments such as the World Cup.”
Jones’s biggest issue seems to be that there is not one stand-out obvious problem that needs addressing — rather he has several smaller issues.
The breakdown, which went so badly against Scotland and France, was not a major concern on Saturday, yet England still struggled for continuity.
The Twickenham stats sheet shows England had more possession, territory, line-breaks and offloads, made 409 metres to Ireland’s 287, and had to make only 133 tackles to the 173 of their visitors.
Yet it never felt like they had parity or were ever on top.
“I cannot say there was ever a time in the game I thought they looked likely to really trouble Ireland,” 2003 World Cup-winning coach Clive Woodward wrote in the Daily Mail.
“Eddie needs to sit down and debrief everybody and find out where they are mentally and why the majority of them are not producing the form they show for their clubs or did for England during that great run.”
The situation is not about to get any easier for Jones either, with the next challenge being a three-match tour of South Africa in June followed by home games against the Springboks and the mighty New Zealand in November.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by John O'Brien