Eddie Jones has assembled a reasonably experienced side, says Adam Hathaway. But can they stay cool in the white heat of a must-win match to stay on track for a Grand Slam?
Martin Johnson didn’t make a whole lot of friends in 2003 when his England side broke protocol and stood in the wrong place at Lansdowne Road against Ireland, leading to some dirty shoes for the Irish president Mary McAleese, but they won a Grand Slam with their 42-6 win.
They then peaked on the summer tour against Australia and New Zealand, before winning the World Cup without playing at their best later in the year. Since then nish, nada, nothing, apart from a Six Nations title in 2011, as the Grand Slam has remained as elusive as ever.
Since Johnson’s gnarled old mob ruled the roost, Wales have won Slams in 2005, 2008 and 2012, France did the honours in 2004 and 2010, and Ireland emulated their 1948 heroes in 2009. If you beat England with a ‘more money and players than anyone else’ stick then that’s a pretty pathetic return.
Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton, Johnson and Stuart Lancaster have been in charge since Clive Woodward left Twickenham in 2004 but all have drawn a blank in the Grand Slam stakes. But it’s not as if they haven’t had chances.
From 2004 to 2010 England lost two or three matches in every championship as they failed dismally to capitalise on the exploits of Johnson and his mates. Since then they have lost a single Six Nations game each year but have only been involved in two final weekend matches when the Slam was on the line.
In 2011 they travelled to Dublin with a starting line-up made up of just 313 England caps, lost 24-8 and were never in the game.
Two years later, in Cardiff, they imploded 30-3 with Lancaster’s run-on team boasting just 290 caps and a coach (Lancaster) who admitted he had never been to a big game at the Millennium Stadium. This was the same boss who told us, when he was appointed, that the world-beating teams had 650-plus caps when they crossed the whitewash. Again, never in the game.
The England team of 2003 was awash with caps, 620 for their country, at the start of the Lansdowne Road game, and had European Cup winners and blokes who had played crucial parts in the 1997 Lions win, admittedly after losing a few big Tests in Europe.
They had beaten the Springboks away in 2000 and downed all three southern hemisphere big guns at Twickenham in 2002. This England team is nothing like that.
Eddie Jones has changed a few things around since pitching up before Christmas but no matter how much money the RFU has, they can’t buy experience by chucking a load of cash at the team.
But somehow Jones has come up with a XV for Saturday’s game against Wales loaded with 527 caps for their country.
Warren Gatland will unload 675 Test appearances onto the Old Cabbage Patch at the weekend and, on Tuesday, Welsh centre Jamie Roberts summed up the difference between the two teams.
Roberts said: “Where the stakes have been at their highest, notably 2013 and last year’s World Cup, we have delivered. There’s now a lot of experience and guys who have played in big moments. To be able to concentrate your focus and attention when the stakes are at their highest is something you can only learn with experience.”
Roberts is right. His side have delivered when the pressure is on in the Six Nations. Jones’s team – although not on his watch – have played three massive games, two against Wales and one against Australia, in the past three years and botched the lot of them.
Woodward’s mighty team famously blew Slams in 1999, 2000 and 2001 before coming good but this England side are learning on the hoof. The fixture list has been kind to them, with a new boss able to bed in new systems against Scotland and Italy before hosting an injury-hit Irish side.
But only eight of this England starting line-up were in Cardiff in 2013 and the same number started against Wales in the World Cup. Those exams were flunked and none of them have got a pass mark in a really big Test match. The Welsh have earned their spurs alright and that is making this Englishman a bit nervous.
The bookies have England as 1/2 favourites for a match that will probably decide the destination of the Six Nations. The men in the trilbies, holding the satchels a week ahead of Cheltenham, usually know something. They have got the experience of winning and losing day in, day out – unlike this England team who have yet to pass a big examination. Now is the time to do it if the Jones bandwagon is to stay on the rails.