England, for the first time in years, have reached the point where only a light touch on the tiller is required. On virtually every summer tour since the game went professional they have either been beset by injuries and off‑field scandals or too knackered to mount a serious challenge.
Suddenly, with Eddie Jones as their master and commander, there is a renewed sense of purpose and homesickness is a thing of the past.
Even the news that Joe Marler has received a formal warning from the Rugby Football Union for abusing the former Wallabies coach Bob Dwyer on Twitter felt like a minor blot on an otherwise clear horizon. At 1-0 up in the three-Test series, with no serious injuries and players training as impressively as they have all season before Saturday’s potentially momentous second Test, England could scarcely be in better shape for the biggest game of Jones’s brief tenure. Nothing is guaranteed, clearly, but a clear sense of visiting optimism hangs in the Victoria air.
The announcement of England’s lineup did little to dilute it, with only a couple of tweaks to the starting XV from the 39-28 victory in Brisbane last Saturday. George Ford and Jack Nowell will be on the field from the outset, with Luther Burrell and Marland Yarde dropping out of the 23. The youthful trio of Jamie George, Jack Clifford and Elliot Daly have also been named among the replacements, with Jones opting for six forwards on the bench in anticipation of a full-throttle contest.
At first glance it is a side set up to start faster, defend better and finish stronger which, sure enough, is Jones’s intention. Nowell and Ford were regular members of England’s Six Nations grand slam-winning side; having not made last week’s run-on team they are now even keener to impress. Nowell had slight knocks to a thumb and his back after the Premiership final but when fully fit, Jones is a big fan of his work rate. “Last week Eddie saying I wasn’t sharp enough definitely gave me a kick up the backside to get my head down a bit more, work harder and try and get the shirt back,” Nowell said. Considering the Exeter wing’s season began more than a year ago with a pre-season camp in Bagshot, it sums up the fresh mindset Jones has sought to instil.
The calendar is now secondary to the substantial reward on offer, as the head coach has been telling his players this week. Jones said: “Being the first side ever to win a series in Australia is a great motivation because if you do that you’re on the walls of Twickenham for ever. That’s what this team wants to be. They have been playing rugby since June but that’s not an excuse not to be at 100%. We have got an opportunity to create history on Saturday and we have left no stone unturned to make sure we do it.”
It is Jones’s belief, furthermore, that his side are capable of wrapping up the series with a week to spare. He is not hugely bothered Australia making four changes to their pack, reasoning it will not particularly change how the Wallabies play. “We are respectful that Australia are a wounded animal and they’re going to come hard at us, but we’ve had a good preparation and we’re in a good spot to play well,” he said. “It has probably been our best week’s preparation: we are physically fit and we are mentally ready to go. I know we’re going to step up – I know this team is going to get better.”
If the ultimate sign of a top team is the quality of the players omitted from the 23, England really are in encouraging nick. Alex Goode, Ben Te’o, Henry Slade, Teimana Harrison, a fit Manu Tuilagi … with the Saxons prospering in South Africa and the Under-20 team having reached the semi-finals of the junior World Cup, the strength in depth available to Jones is steadily growing. Reuniting Ford and Farrell at 10 and 12 also gives the former Australia coach a couple of maturing on-field lieutenants. “Their understanding of the game for 23- and 24-year-olds is absolutely outstanding,” Jones added. “They have got a great command of game sense and game understanding and that is important in big Test matches.”
It is no state secret, either, that England are putting particular emphasis on the opening 20 minutes, their least productive period of the game in Brisbane. “We know we have to get that 20 minutes right, which we didn’t do last week,” Jones said. “Defensive intensity has to be high because Australia are going to be running from everywhere. We’ll defend better than we did last week.”
Things could yet become more complicated if the referee, Craig Joubert, takes a less than benign view of England’s scrummaging, but Jones has seen enough of the South African official to be suitably optimistic. “We’ve played under Joubert against Wales and we thought he was a very good referee,” he said. “I had him in the Rugby World Cup for two of Japan’s games and he was outstanding. For me he’s a really good ref. I’m sure he’s not going to be influenced by Phil Kearns or Bob Dwyer or whoever else. We’re confident he’ll do a great job.”
Perhaps keen to reinforce that point, Jones phoned up his old mate Dwyer on Thursday, although the pair did not specifically discuss Marler’s latest gaffe, under which the RFU has now officially drawn a line. Jones has also accepted an apology from the former Wallabies prop Stephen Hoiles for his unedifying press conference question last week, but remains rather less forgiving of “four or five others at Fox Sports who could have apologised”.
His only other grievance surrounds Michael Cheika’s view that England were guilty of excessive “niggle” in Brisbane. “We’ve been respectful about them, the way they play the game and the way they conduct themselves – and we’ll continue to do that,” Jones said. Should England take an unbeatable 2-0 lead in the series, the response from certain Australian quarters will be fascinating indeed.
England team to face Australia on Saturday
M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), J Nowell (Exeter Chiefs); G Ford (Bath), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), G Kruis (Saracens), M Itoje (Saracens), C Robshaw (Harlequins), J Haskell (Wasps), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements J George (Saracens), M Mullan (Wasps), P Hill (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), J Clifford (Harlequins), D Care (Harlequins), E Daly (Wasps).
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