his year, and especially in its long autumn, rugby union has seemed a game gripped by an existential crisis.
Missing its fans perhaps more than any other sport, it has been tempting to wonder “why bother?” The action itself has not been every fan’s idea of pure entertainment.
But on Sunday at Twickenham, aside from some interesting interpretation by the officials, was a day to stir the soul, and to provide belief that the end of the cycle the sport is in will come.
The fans were back, and made their presence felt. Almost all of them left with a smile on their face. France are back, too, and now have depth to field two outstanding teams. The sheer style brought by their presence enriched an entertaining contest which England somehow won.
That they did, by hook or crook and requiring a few extra minutes, gives them another trophy, eight straight victories and plenty of cause for optimism. Professional sport is about winning, and they are rather good at that.
Eddie Jones feels his team do not receive the respect they deserve. On the surface, they have had a good year. Every losing World Cup finalist this century has suffered a slump the following year. England have not. It is their name on both the trophies available to them.
There are clearly issues. England again appeared cowed by a final and Jones admits their attack has not developed as much as he would have liked.
Jones put winning first this year, and it has worked. Even when the opportunity was there for major experimentation this autumn, he resisted. He has used 38 players, the fewest of his five years in the job. Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jonny May and Jamie George have started every game. Elliot Daly, Tom Curry, Kyle Sinckler and Ben Youngs are one behind.
Where England have developed is on the bench — and Jones’s replacements dug him out of a hole in their final game of the year. The role of and rules around the bench is a major reason for rugby’s style crisis. By allowing coaches to change more than half of their team, players do not tire — especially in the front-row. Jones is among those who would reduce the number of replacements allowed (perhaps you could select eight but use just four?).
Jones and replacements have an interesting history. He is not afraid of a statement sub — an extremely premature removal — as Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison learned early in his time with England. He started officially calling replacements “Finishers”.
Now one of his former assistants, Paul Gustard, has changed from calling them “Game Changers” to “Impact Players” at Harlequins. The general rhetoric is that rugby is a 23-man game now, and that replacements are no longer second-class citizens. Generally, though, the best players still start.
Jones did have “game changers” to call on yesterday when they were most required. Luke Cowan-Dickie scored the try that took the game to extra time.
Jonny Hill sorted out the lineout. Max Malins enlivened England’s attack. Ben Earl and Dan Robson were both upgrades on the players they replaced.
Will Stuart is another who has had a strong first year in international rugby. It is those performances that will give Jones most cause for optimism on a heartening day.
His team are not perfect but they are winning and developing.