England unbeaten in 2016 – but there is still work to do
'We're only the number two team in the world and we want to be number one,' says Eddie Jones after Australia victory
England 37 Australia 21
England capped a remarkable year with a rumbustious performance on Saturday, coming back from a dreadful start to beat Australia 37-21 at Twickenham. The victory equalled their 13-year-old record of 14 consecutive Test victories and they become only the second major Test nation this century - after New Zealand in 2013 - to go through a calendar year unbeaten.
The next target is the All Blacks record of 18 successive Test victories, a winning streak ended at the start of last month by Ireland's stunning win in Chicago.
Is it possible? Don't bet against it. England's next match is at home to France in the opening game of the 2017 Six Nations, and there then follows a trip to Wales before they entertain Italy and Scotland at Twickenham. That would bring them level with New Zealand's record, and if they want to surpass the Kiwis they'll have to defeat Ireland in Dublin, no easy task given that their form this year has been almost as impressive as England's.
But despite the jubilation of Saturday's victory - revenge of sorts for the 33-13 hammering inflicted by Australia during the 2015 World Cup, a defeat that knocked England out of the tournament - coach Eddie Jones rubbished the idea that this vintage of Men in White is comparable to the World Cup-winning squad of 2003.
"That team was much better than we are at the moment,” said Jones. "They could win any number of ways and our challenge is to be at our best by the 2019 World Cup... I am not getting carried away because we have a lot of work to do to become the best team in the world. We are developing a desire to get there and that is the first thing."
As for the match itself, Jones described England's first-half performance - in which they conceded a try after seven minutes - as "scatty". He continued: "It reminded me of the grand slam game in Paris and perhaps the players were nervous, but they showed composure, resilience and the ability to adapt in the second half."
It's been England's adaptability that has been the most heartening feature for the fans. Under the previous coach, Stuart Lancaster, the players seemed incapable of reacting to setbacks, of adjusting their game to suit either the opposition or the conditions.
Not Jones' England, as they showed in overcoming the early red card of Elliot Daly to defeat Argentina last month, and as they displayed in fighting back from their sluggish start against the Aussies. Furthermore, they've won their four November Tests despite the absence of several key players, including Billy Vunipola, Maro Itoje and James Haskell.
"What we have to do is keep improving and what this month has shown, with a number of players missing, is that no one in the side is irreplaceable," explained Jones. "They all have to work hard to keep the jersey."
One feature of Jones' 12-month reign has been his candour, never allowing the media to lead him down the path to complacency. He remained true to form on Saturday evening, laughing off the idea England were worthy of comparison with New Zealand. "We are progressing but we can't get too ahead of ourselves," he said. "We're only the number two team in the world and we want to be number one. We've got a long way to go before we achieve that."
But the Aussie did have this message for New Zealand. "We're hellbent on achieving that. We've got the talent here. It's just whether we get the desire and cohesion right."
England vs Australia: Will the winning streak continue?
England take on Australia at Twickenham in the final Test of the autumn series tomorrow on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation achievement.
So far in 2016 they have played 12 and won 12. Victory over the Wallabies will see them unbeaten in the calendar year, a feat that only New Zealand’s All Blacks have achieved in the professional era, winning all 14 of their matches in 2013.
The last time an England side went unbeaten for a year was 1992, but on that occasion, the team – captained by Will Carling – played just six matches: four Five Nations games and autumn tests against Canada and South Africa.
As commendable as it was, it pales into insignificance to the exploits of Eddie Jones's squad in 2016. Having won the Six Nations at the start of the year – their first Grand Slam since 2003 – England beat Wales in a friendly in May and then whitewashed Australia the following month in a three-series Down Under.
The winning streak has continued in the autumn with victories over South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, the latter all the more remarkable because England played 70 minutes with only 14 men, after Elliot Daly was sent off for a high tackle. The ban means the Wasp star will miss tomorrow's match.
Should England triumph at Twickenham they will extend their winning run to 14 Tests, having beaten Uruguay in October 2015 in their last World Cup match, a hollow victory given that they had already missed out on a quarter-final place after losing to Wales and Australia.
The win over the Uruguayans brought down the curtain on Stuart Lancaster's tenure as England coach, and he was replaced a few weeks later by Jones.
The transformation brought about by the Australian has been extraordinary. Using most of the same players that bombed so badly in the World Cup, Jones has instilled a fierce sense of self-belief in the England squad and made them more innovative and adaptable.
This spirit has helped the team overcome serious injuries to several key players and proved invaluable last week against Argentina when they kept their heads after the early dismissal of Daly.
"The great thing about our team is that no one is irreplaceable," said Jones, when asked to account for the team's staggering success this year. "We've had seven influential players missing throughout the autumn but we've been able to fill that gap and that's the sort of team we are developing."
For the visit of the Australians, Jones has made two changes to the XV that started last week against Argentina. Marland Yarde replaces the suspended Daly on the wing and Fijian-born Nathan Hughes comes in at No8 for the injured Billy Vunipola.
"We want to make the game into a physical contest but we also need to be flexible and adaptable like we were against Argentina. If do that we'll put ourselves in a good position to win the game," said Jones, who is relishing the chance to put one over his compatriots.
Jones has said he felt the treatment meted out to England by the local media during the summer tour Down Under was "disrespectful" and he's been unhappy with comments made this week by Aussie coach Michael Cheika, who queried the legality of the England scrummaging.
"Cheika has had a lot to say this week," said Jones. "I'm disappointed he's upset... We'll have a cold beer after the game so he's welcome to join us. I don't control his emotions. We believe that when we went on the Australian tour, staff and players behaved in a very respectful manner.
"But I'll reinforce again, I found the Australian media very disrespectful so don't hide away from those comments."