By Lawrence White
London – England coach Eddie Jones again faulted himself after his team subsided to a dispiriting 27-13 defeat by South Africa at Twickenham on Saturday and most fans would for once agree.
The period until next year's Six Nations will be one of dread and exasperation for England fans, as they wonder if and how Jones can turn around some seemingly fundamental problems.
"I have coached for a number of years and I believe I can coach well. People will say what they say, and there are ups and downs in sport but we didn't play well today and I apologise for that, it's entirely my fault," Jones said.
The Australian has insisted time and again that England's defeats are learning moments, that he is holding back some of their best plays for the World Cup and that the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis needs time.
There is no question as to the credentials of the Australian coach who in 2015 steered unfancied Japan to glory against South Africa, who has innovated in selection and tactics constantly, and who at times has made his England team unbeatably abrasive.
But the current side are a shadow of the one that torched the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, the peak of their performances under Jones.
With no more games left this year, England end 2022 with their worst record since 2008 in terms of defeats, hardly proof, as Jones maintains, that the team are nearly there with just some polishing needed.
"On results we are not happy, but I feel like we are building a good base to have a go at the World Cup," he said.
What is most alarming is that the problems seem widespread, from a tendency to concede clusters of penalties, to a set piece that can crumble at inopportune times, to an alarming drop in basic handling standards of late.
Even a strength of England's recently, namely Freddie Steward's aerial prowess, seemed lacking on Saturday as South Africa repeatedly profited from high kicks.
"We lost the air, lost the scrum battle, when you lose those two key contests it's hard to turn the game around," Jones said.
England's miserable day was compounded by injuries, with Jones saying prop Will Stuart and fly half Smith were among the wounded, without elaborating on how severe the knocks were.
"We are hurting, but this team will learn from it and come back strong," England's captain Owen Farrell said.
But the side are fast running out of opportunities to put things right.
Jones has often deployed this self-blaming tactic of late, perhaps as a means to deflect criticism from the players, but he let reporters see his more pugnacious side when asked if his team could now be seen as underdogs for the 2023 World Cup.
"I don't really care what anyone else thinks," he said.