England rugby: How Eddie Jones' team improved to end 2016 unbeaten

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England would play All Blacks tomorrow - Eddie Jones

A year on from the deflation of the Rugby World Cup, England capped their annus mirabilis by coming from behind to stun Australia 37-21 at Twickenham - equalling the 14-Test winning record of the 2003 vintage.

As a game it served as a microcosm of England's improvements under Eddie Jones; be it the response to adversity, the dominant set-piece, or the clinical way they finished off their four tries.

But after 15 minutes, England's dreams of completing the perfect 2016 looked to be going up in smoke as Australia tore Jones' side to shreds.

So how were they able to respond to the Wallaby blitz, and what has set England apart this year?

Using setbacks as a springboard

"England were terrible in the first 20 minutes," former England fly-half Paul Grayson told BBC Radio 5 live.

"But when they were hanging on by their fingernails, they found a way not to concede.

"England have found a way to use setbacks as a springboard to recovery - and ultimately they managed to shift the momentum of the game.

"In this game it came through the accuracy of Ben Youngs' box-kicking, the effectiveness of their chase, and the intensity of their midfield press, which ultimately led to the Jonathan Joseph try which completely altered the course of the game."

World-class players

Ben Youngs
Ben Youngs had one of this best games in an England shirt and staked a claim for a Lions starting place

Since the halcyon days of Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, England have lacked a crop of 'World XV' players, as evidenced by the paucity of Englishmen to have excelled in a Lions Test shirt on the past two tours.

Indeed, Jones spoke this autumn about how England have yet to develop a world-class player since Wilkinson, although in the aftermath of the autumn he admits some of his men are nearing that status.

"I think we are getting there. Ben Youngs put down a marker to go on the Lions tour," Jones told BBC Radio 5 live. "George Ford was outstanding again today, and Mako Vunipola is a great player."

Youngs has arguably been England's player of the autumn, with his brilliant individual try sealing the win over the Wallabies.

"He's been incredible this season," World Cup winning scrum-half Matt Dawson told BBC Radio 5 live.

"He's grown as a rugby player and a person and has developed his game incredibly well. To keep improving week in, week out is a real credit to him."

England had few players dominating a Lions Test series in 2009 and 2013 - that will surely change in New Zealand next summer.

Strength in depth

Nathan Hughes
Number eight Nathan Hughes impressed on his first start, in place of the injured Billy Vunipola

Before the autumn, England were beset by injuries to key players, with Grand Slam winners Maro Itoje, George Kruis, James Haskell, Anthony Watson and Jack Nowell among those to be ruled out.

But, in their absence, the likes of Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood and Jonny May have excelled, while Nathan Hughes replaced Billy Vunipola against Australia and made a significant impact in the second half.

"For England to be competitive at the World Cup in 2019 they don't need 15 players, they need 36 players," Dawson added.

"That is in the forefront of Eddie Jones and his management's mind."

Jones also hailed the performance of Hughes, who after a nervous opening grew into his first Test start.

"That was a massive game for him today - by far the biggest game he has every played in - and I thought he acquitted himself very well," Jones said.

"During the warm-up he couldn't catch a ball, if you gave him £1,000 he couldn't catch it. He was nervous and to play like that is a real testament to his character.

"It doesn't get much bigger than this, and the way he was able to fight through his nerves was outstanding. Goodness me, we have two good number eights, don't we?"

As England arrived at Twickenham on Sunday, Itoje, 21, made his Saracens return from a fractured hand that has ruled him out since October.

But, England's impressive performances have ensured Jones has not missed World Rugby's breakthrough player of the year.

"Who has mentioned Itoje [this autumn]?" asked Dawson.

"In four games we haven't mentioned him once, and that shows the quality in this side and the strength in depth."

Another Grand Slam?

Dylan Hartley
Dylan Hartley has grown in the role of England captain since replacing Chris Robshaw after last year's World Cup

Having equalled their winning record of 14 successive victories, England can pass it on the opening day of the 2017 Six Nations when they face France at Twickenham on 4 February.

With further home games against Italy and Scotland - as well as a fixture in Cardiff against a stuttering Wales - England may well go to Dublin on the final weekend with a second Grand Slam in as many years in their sights.

"We are not looking at records, just the next game. But we can draw a line under this year with a good victory against a quality side," skipper Dylan Hartley said on BBC Radio 5 live.

"I'm very proud of the guys over the last few weeks, and it's nice to go back to our clubs knowing we have done English rugby and the shirt proud.

"We leave it in a good place until the Six Nations."

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