“That,” said Eddie Jones after England’s stodgy, stuttering 21-8 win over Argentina, “was a grindathon”.
He had a characteristic grin on his face as he did so, which was in stark contrast to the mute fury he was registering for most of the match.
Opening matches in autumn campaigns are seldom pretty affairs. There is rust in the gears, an unfamiliar look to some combinations and a weariness in the legs of others.
England were missing 12 regulars yet still ran out comfortable winners against a nation with a markedly superior record across the last three World Cups.
This was still too much like bad history repeating for the laconic Australian, less a performance from the Jones era than the Johnson one.
Eight autumns ago England ran out against Argentina here at Twickenham with a new combination at centre and a fancy new kit to dress them in.
That day they were in purple, in a design the publicity promised to make them harder to tackle and more fleet of foot, the material supposedly 27% lighter than the previous shirt.
On Saturday it was a greyish navy, 20 grams lighter this time, “inspired by distraction principles, the red fade feature designed to make it harder to distinguish aspects of the body during the tackle”.
For Shane Geraghty and Dan Hipkiss in 2009 read Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph on Saturday afternoon. For Martin Johnson’s beetling brows and clenched fists back then there was Jones caught on the big screens using the sort of word that 57-year-old former hookers from Sydney’s suburbs often use when they don’t think they’re being watched.
The England of autumn 2009 were neither hard to tackle nor fleet of foot. The England of Saturday certainly appeared distracted. Owen Farrell had reportedly been upset to be left out for Slade; as the game went on, his reputation in absentia grew with every misplaced pass.
Jones has fashioned a far more successful team than Johnson, and his side’s World Cup prospects remain considerably brighter than the unlamented displays Johnson’s team produced two years later in New Zealand.
While Twickenham appeared stupefied for much of Saturday afternoon there was never the outright hostility that greeted the 16-9 slogfest back then.
|Autumn internationals 2017|
|11 Nov||Beat Argentina 21-8||Lost to Australia 21-29||Beat Samoa 44-38||Beat South Africa 38-3|
|18 Nov||v Australia||v Georgia||v New Zealand||v Fiji|
|25 Nov||v Samoa||v New Zealand||v Australia||v Argentina|
|2 Dec||v South Africa|
But just as neither Geraghty and Hipkiss even made the squad for that World Cup, so this display was a timely reminder that opportunities need to be seized even as too much is often expected in too brief a time.
Slade deserved his chance at inside centre, arguably unlucky not to be given a chance at the last World Cup until the game was up and Uruguay the only opponents left.
As Jones looks to develop sufficient depth to his squad that he has three Test-proven players in every position, the epitome of Exeter’s excellence is the sort of alterative option most other international coaches would envy.
He also deserves much longer to show what he can do. Sixty-two minutes alongside Joseph is a brief baptism for a new combination, even with the alternatives – Farrell, Ben Te’o, Alex Lozowski – stacked up in his peripheral vision.
There were mistakes and misplaced passes, not least the one that fell in front of Nathan Hughes with the number eight in the same sort of room down the left wing as he had found down the right for his first-half try.
There was also a glimpse of his accuracy as he found Semesa Rokoduguni alone on the right for the try 14 minutes from time that finally left Jones a little less red in the face.
“He did some good things, but it’s that understanding between 10, 12 and 13 that we wanted, and it wasn’t always there,” Jones said.
“We had the opportunity to score more points and we couldn’t put it away. We lacked that understanding on the outside, but the great thing was we created some chances.
“They just didn’t gel. But these things happen. Literally, we’ve had four training sessions together. We will be better next week.”
Jones was happier with the performance of Sam Underhill, the 21-year-old Bath open-side looking at home in his second cap and felling Argentine runners with the same resolute solidity as he has in the Premiership over the past season and a half.
In a week where much of the talk in rugby has been of the crisis in Samoan rugby and the need to protect and bolster the game in the Pacific islands, Jones also had reason to be grateful to his two Fiji-born powerhouses, Hughes and Rokoduguni.
There were 23 players born in Samoa, Tonga and Fiji playing for other nations this weekend. England, the richest nation in world rugby, a team who pays its players £22,000 a match where Samoa give theirs £650, should not need outside assistance, yet without the tries of Hughes and Rokoduguni this may have turned from a challenging afternoon for Jones into a furious one.
“We want to play well, and we want to play good rugby,” he said. “We will be better next week.”