Eddie Jones is back where it all began, determined to prove that the end is not yet in sight. This is the city where the RFU came to recruit him as England head coach. Now he is here again, fighting for his future.
In November 2015, the RFU chief executive, Ian Ritchie, flew to Cape Town, where Jones had just taken charge of the Stormers after a successful World Cup with Japan. He made the Australian an offer he couldn’t refuse and Jones was soon unveiled amid great fanfare at Twickenham. Hope gave way to glory, with a world-record run of 18 consecutive Test victories, but Jones now finds himself under siege.
In the countdown to today’s series finale, he said: ‘I woke up this morning, looked at Table Mountain and thought, “It’s a nice place” — particularly when you’re on top, not so much when you’re looking from the bottom, so we need to get back on top.’
England are stuck in a rut and their head coach is besieged by doubts about his ability to orchestrate another revival. He had already led a charge up the global rankings to second, leaving the All Blacks as the last target. But now a sudden freefall has left them down in sixth.
Five successive Test defeats, along with a nine-try thumping by the Barbarians, have led to this critical moment when a second transformation is required to preserve this troubled regime. With the pressure mounting since the defeat in Bloemfontein which gave South Africa a 2-0 series win with one to play, Jones has repeatedly faced down his critics. He is bullish and adamant that he can lead his team out of this tight corner.
He was asked about his position again before today’s clash at Newlands and said: ‘I don’t need to worry about my job. At the moment we have a young team that is struggling a bit. Everyone knows we are struggling.
‘We don’t have enough experience in the team. We’ve got 400-450 caps. That’s a side barely out of kindergarten. We’re going through a renewal period and it is tough. Someone has to take the team through it and I’m taking it through.’
England are definitely a team in transition but the emphasis on their cap tally is misleading. Their players starting this match have a combined total of 545 caps. In contrast, the Springboks have 348.
Their efforts on this turbulent trip have followed a similar pattern to earlier performances in 2018, when the wheels began to come off with defeats by Scotland, France and Ireland. Discipline has been a damaging issue, errors have stacked up under pressure and decision-making has unravelled under pressure.
Owen Farrell is the new captain hastily trying to solve the riddle of repeat offences. He echoed Jones’s view that the challenge is primarily a mental one. ‘I think the losses at times have affected our confidence on the field, in terms of being a bit more indecisive,’ he said. ‘I think that comes with losing a few in a row.
‘We can’t be too desperate. In the last couple of games that has been our downfall. It doesn’t feel that we are in this situation. Obviously it is very disappointing. Everyone is working hard. The effort is right up there and we feel like we are improving. It is just about getting the big moments right.’
The problem for England is that their opponents are rising fast. Rassie Erasmus inherited a pile of rubble and the South Africa head coach is rapidly building a palace. He has united his team and his nation with the historic appointment of Siya Kolisi as the first black captain of the Springboks. He has brought together new combinations in all areas and rapidly forged a cohesive unit.
The hosts have dominated their rivals up front and Jones is well aware that with rain forecast today, the onus on his pack will be even greater than it was in the previous two tests.
Joe Marler and Nathan Hughes have been charged with filling the void left by the Vunipola brothers and without a steep improvement in the set-piece and maul, the recall of Danny Cipriani will be like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.
The master playmaker can unleash a devastating repertoire today but only if he is given a decent supply of front-foot possession. Cipriani is a sorcerer but he needs the ball to conjure his spells.
England have shown in the past fortnight that they have deadly firepower out wide. Jonny May is in supreme form and there are creative forces across the field. But if minds are scrambled and penalties are conceded in large numbers, flair won’t prevent a whitewash.
If there is another defeat, in the city where the RFU hired Jones, it may be the place where they start to consider firing him.