Eddie Jones was this week presented with a bath mat by the England players to celebrate his birthday following a recent fall and the head coach has reciprocated with a timely reminder their RBS Six Nations title defence could be tripped up by complacency as they head into tomorrow’s clash with France at Twickenham.
England have the chance to make history by registering a 15th successive win to eclipse the run of Sir Clive Woodward’s World Cup winning team in 2003, but with half of their Grand Slam winning pack out injured, the French will believe their own rugby revival under coach Guy Noves can be launched at the home of English rugby.
The fact that England are without line out king George Kruis, ball carrying experts Billy and Maro Vunipola along with Chris Robshaw, the glue that has held the team together since the World Cup win over Uruguay which started the run of victories, should mean the reigning champions are vulnerable.
However, under Jones, selection has become much clearer and has utilized the strength in depth that has always been available to England but was so often compromised by poor choices. To replace those four key players, Jones has selected Harlequins prop Joe Marler, Wasps captain Joe Launchbury, moved Maro Itoje to No6 and given Nathan Hughes the self-belief to be a destructive force at No8.
Jones has used “ a sledgehammer” to hit complacency on the head whenever he sensed it was present at team meetings and took note of Arsenal’s recent 2-0 loss to Watford as an example of how it can seriously undermine performance. “ It took them until they were 2-0 down to wake up and we cannot afford to do that against France:” explained Jones who believes Noves is making a significant impact on a French side that has been a shambling mess for far too long.
Of course, being Jones, the plaudits for Noves were quickly followed by the view that his French opposite number was under real pressure because “French rugby is desperate for success”. Noves had considerable success at Toulouse putting out a fearsome pack supplemented by backs who could counter-attack from anywhere. Achieving this at test level will be a big ask, particularly against an England team that is much further down the road to rugby’s Shangri-La.
Jones has in place the building blocks for what he is confident will be a successful bid for World Cup glory in 2019 with England’s attacking play the last and most difficult area to get right. Noves is still working out what his best line up is and like his English counterpart has been battling to overcome injuries in recent weeks.
While Jones has installed men he knows can operate the way he demands the team must play, Noves’ selection is based on more hope than expectation and England will be determined to expose any weaknesses. Central to Jones’s game plan is the use of what he believes is the “ strongest bench in the world” and they will be needed as captain Dylan Hartley – banned for six weeks – and Marler, out for a month with his broken leg, are short of game time.
Saracens Jamie George will take over from Hartley with Wasps Matt Mullan waiting to replace Marler whenever the Quins prop hits the physical wall. Hartley paid for his family to join him once a week during his ban at the England hotel in Bagshot where he worked on his fitness with the strength and conditioning experts. Hartley described the sessions as “brutal.”
Marler has boxed his way to fitness, downing gallons of milk and extolling the restorative powers of the Brighton sea air as he overcame that broken bone in his leg. The fact that Marler and Hartley are in the front row means they will be put under severe physical pressure by the a big French pack and while both players are supremely confident in the game intensity training they have endured, there will be concerns about how long they can last.
However, the sight of Hartley and Marler departing will not unduly worry the England camp where the mantra “ no one is indispensable” is regularly repeated and explains why the loss of the Vunipola’s, Kruis and Robshaw has not undermined confidence.
Jones has been constantly challenging Hartley in camp, giving what his captain describes as a “daily reminder” which is designed to make him a better player. Hartley knows the head coach is doing the same to the rest of the squad as part of an endless drive for improvement. Hartley said:”What we did in the Six Nations and Autumn tests will not be good enough – that is the truth.”
That is exactly the mind set Jones wants and why England will make history tomorrow and make it 15 wins in a row.