Eddie Jones’ first moment of reckoning with England is nearly upon us but how will his side differ from the one that crashed out of the World Cup?
By Adam Hathaway
The scrum is traditionally England’s strong point and it was all going so well under Graham Rowntree until France did a number on the pack in a World Cup warm-up game in Paris. That sent the alarm bells ringing and the set-piece gradually got worse in the tournament to the point when the scrum was taken to pieces by Australia of all teams.
Jones – with Ian Peel on board – has got to fix this quick and we will probably see the hookers hooking for the ball which will quickly end up at the No 8’s feet as it did when he was in charge of Japan. Any team with Dylan Hartley as captain and Billy Vunipola at the back of the scrum won’t be averse to going for the odd pushover either but Jones wants that ball out quick more often than not.
Off the pitch
It is hard to get anyone to go on the record about it, but one of the criticisms of the Stuart Lancaster years was that players could never let their hair down. Even five-star luxury 24/7 grates eventually when you are cocooned in your training hotel and Jones has hinted that the squad have already had a couple of nights out. And no, he is not putting a limit on how many beers a player can have but is not expected to find anyone staggering back from Bagshot with 15 pints on board.
Do that and they can expect to be driving home the next morning – if they’ve sobered up – but Jones has told the squad to enjoy themselves now and again and has trusted them not to overdo it.
We have already had a taste of the Jones mind games ‘Scotland are favourites’ was reversed pretty quickly at Monday’s offering for the press. Lancaster never got involved in that sort of skulduggery.
Chris Robshaw copped loads during the World Cup especially after the Wales game when some muddled thinking – and not just by the captain – cost England a draw and then a win. If Martin Johnson had turned down a draw, or a throw to the front had been called in the last minute, he had other players around him who were strong enough to question him with Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson, Neil Back, Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood all ready to put in their two pennyworth.
If the new captain Dylan Hartley needs any advice he only has to turn around and there will be a bloke there who has captained England 42 times, more than anyone except Will Carling, standing there. His name is Chris Robshaw and he didn’t have anyone like that around in the World Cup. Hartley will need other leaders to step up – Joe Launchbury, James Haskell, George Ford, Owen Farrell, Danny Care and Ben Youngs have been around long enough not to be scared to throw their opinions in the mix.
England chucked the ball about in the last Six Nations, scoring 18 tries in the process, but got stage fright the closer they got to the World Cup. Jones says they should not be afraid to try things when they are on but no-one is expecting them to play like the Harlem Globetrotters up at Murrayfield in their opening fixture.
That might all change later in the tournament though if England get a couple of wins under their belt early on but, for now, don’t expect a fast and loose game from the visitors in Edinburgh for whom a narrow win will do. England’s most successful side, and we know who they were, did not always throw the ball around – they knew when to stick it up their jumper. The pretty stuff can come later.
Keeping them sweet
Jones let Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje go back to their clubs after the squad’s first gathering but let them know they were in his thoughts by saying they would be 60-plus cap Test players and they would make their debuts before the Six Nations was out. The obvious game to blood this pair, starting or off the bench is the game against Italy, in Rome, on 14 February.
The last time England had a new coach, Lancaster in 2102, they had the same opening two fixtures. Lancaster gave seven players their first caps in the 13-6 win over Scotland but kept the same starting line-up for the 19-15 victory in Rome. Lancaster would have been on the phone to fringe players but by name-checking this pair in public Jones at least made sure they did not go into sulk mode.
Scotland have not beaten England at Murrayfield since 2008 and have not scored a try in a Calcutta Cup match there since 2004 when Simon Danielli did the business.But they quietly fancy their chances of putting a spoke in the wheel of the Jones bandwagon. And why wouldn’t they? On the face of it a winless Six Nations cannot gloss over the heroics of their World Cup quarter-final loss to Australia.
But coach Vern Cotter has an improving side on his hands with a decent front row – spearheaded by WP Nel, one of the best goal kickers around in Greig Laidlaw and some decent gas out the back in the shape of Sean Maitland, Stuart Hogg and Mark Bennett, who has been declared fit for action after a shoulder injury. A win for Scotland would probably have more of a positive influence on Vern Cotter’s team than a defeat would affect Eddie Jones, who is still in honeymoon mode and has Italy next up.