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Can Ireland overcome an England team recovering from the 'burden of defeat'?

Losing a World Cup final can ‘twist your thinking,’ according to the 60-year-old Australian.

WE CAN BE fairly sure that Eddie Jones thought about walking away from the England job in the wake of his team’s World Cup final defeat to South Africa last year.

The England boss was and still is contracted through until August 2021 but losing the biggest game in the sport likely led to Jones considering quitting.

Indeed, one of the biggest regrets of Jones’ life is not leaving his job as Australia head coach after they had lost the 2003 World Cup final to England. By December 2005, he had been sacked after a run of eight defeats in nine games.

“The struggle to come to grips with losing a World Cup final took me two years,” says Jones in his autobiography, My Life and Rugby.

sport-review-of-the-year-2019 Jones after England's World Cup final defeat last year. Source: PA

“It ate at me. On the surface I was fine and already planning for the next World Cup but, deep down, I was hurting.

“I would not change many things about my life but, if I could, this would be one. I should have resigned after the final. I should have walked away on a relative high and taken a break from the game.”

Jones details that after such a “heartbreaking loss” there is a “burden of defeat” for the next few years that “twists your thinking.”

The 60-year-old returns to the theme later in his book when he recounts preparing his England team for their tour of Australia in the summer of 2016, the year after the Wallabies had lost the 2015 World Cup final to New Zealand.

Jones felt Michael Cheika’s men were vulnerable.

“England’s record in Australia was dire but I sensed a real opportunity,” says Jones. “People who have not been in the position themselves have little idea of the emotional toll felt by a team who lose a World Cup final. 

“You’re so closing to winning the greatest event in rugby and, suddenly, you’ve lost the game and all your hope. It’s hard to recover, mentally and spiritually.”

And so, we can be certain that Jones was very aware of how difficult the 2020 Six Nations was going to be for England, particularly given that they were favourites for last year’s World Cup final after blowing away the All Blacks in their semi-final.

Rather than walking away, Jones has stayed on as England boss and set his team the challenge of becoming “the greatest team to ever play rugby.”

It might sound like a thoughtless soundbite but there is something in this – Jones has attempted to shift England’s focus very much to the present and the short-term future rather than allowing his players to wallow in the dejection of the World Cup final defeat.

Farrell Owen Farrell speaks to his team on 'The Next Level'. Source: England Rugby/YouTube

In the first episode of England Rugby’s excellent ‘The Next Level‘ series, we hear captain Owen Farrell taking up the theme set out by Jones.

“For us, we’ve got to take our norm up a level in terms of standards – how we train, how we recover, how we interact with each other, everything,” says Farrell.

“We’ve got to enjoy taking this to somewhere it’s never been before. And to do that, we’ve got to take our normal up here [Farrell reaches up above his head] and make that become our normal as a playing group.”

As he speaks, Farrell is standing in front of a slide that details how the World Cup runners-up from 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015 were all knocked out in the quarter-finals of the next World Cup. On average, their win-rate percentage declined in the four years after losing the final.

None of those losing finalists won the Six Nations or Rugby Championship the year after their World Cup disappointment.

The challenge to this England group is clear.

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While Jones feels he should have walked away from the Wallabies job after the 2003 World Cup, he will certainly have learned from his shortcomings in the wake of that disappointment. England could now be the beneficiaries of his growth mindset in relation to dealing with their pain last year, or they could suffer.

England’s first performance in this Six Nations certainly spoke of a team who had not fully recovered “mentally and spiritually” just yet.

While France deserve credit for their strong performance on home soil in Paris, Jones’ side delivered a horror first-half display that saw them constantly cough up possession inside the French 22, often with opportunity beckoning. Watching Jonny May switch off for Charles Ollivon’s first try that day was jarring, as was the sight of Farrell dropping the ball cold twice. Trailing 17-0 at half-time, they left themselves with too much to do.

eddie-jones Jones' England notched a gritty win against Scotland last time out. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Evidently, England weren’t mentally in the right space but they certainly would have reflected on that game as one they should have won. 

Jones’ men then steeled themselves for the visit to Scotland in round two and the confidence boost gained from their gritty win in dire weather shouldn’t be underestimated.

The likes of Maro Itoje, Sam Underhill, and Tom Curry were impressive in what was a ferocious battle up front in between the remarkable total of 79 kicks in play from both teams. Most people who watched it will have immediately wiped that Calcutta Cup clash in Murrayfield from their memories, but England will have taken real heart from the win.

And so, they now ready themselves for the visit of Andy Farrell’s Ireland, themselves buoyed by two wins in their opening two games as they recover from their own World Cup disappointment.

It will be riveting to see which team plays with greater confidence and whether Jones can buck the trend of World Cup runners-up struggling to bounce back.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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