We want no Italy player left standing, insists England head coach Eddie Jones
From “a Vauxhall Viva to a BMW”, from clunky England to turbo-charged England, from a restrained, introverted side to one who intend to lay waste to Italy, Eddie Jones’s team will head to Rome entrusted with the task of adding to the ruins of the Eternal City by reducing their opponents to rubble.
As statements of intent go, it was brazen. There is no such thing as a routine pre-match briefing in the Jones era. First rhetoric then action. Or that is the plan.
“We want to be absolutely brutal up front so there is no Italian player left standing at the end of the game,” said Jones, announcing three changes, with Courtney Lawes, Mako Vunipola and Ben Youngs promoted at the expense of Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler and Danny Care. “We want to make the opposition fear us. That means being dominant at set-piece, a strangulating defence and the ability to be ruthless in attack.”
Jones is not all bombast. He recognises that it will be “a b----- tough game”, that Italy will come “hard’ at England and will be “flying everywhere”. But the point he stressed is that he wants his side to be “confident – not delusional but confident”. That very word was repeated, with the Australian, hailing from a nation reared on being cocksure of ability, using the simple mathematics of the global ranking system (England at seventh, Italy five places lower) to endorse his point. England have never lost in 21 matches against Italy and, in the eyes of the well-travelled Jones, who has done separate consultancy stints in the last two years at Treviso and Zebre, nor, on paper, should they.
This process of emboldening his team, of encouraging them to play to their long-standing status as one of the leading powers, of puffing out chests and flicking brain into gear, has been ongoing since he took over. Jones dismissed the notion that this fixture might be 'a banana skin’ so early in his tenure, waving away also the idea that this may be Italy’s moment to rage against the dying of the light, as they once again appear to be headed for the nether reaches of the championship table, their spirited display in the Stade de France last weekend notwithstanding. “No, mate,” was Jones’s curt response to both lines of questioning.
If the head coach is bullish, it is up to the players to deliver. In a practical sense, Jones has set them on that course by choosing an unconventional six forwards, two backs on the replacements’ bench. The one supplementary forward will enable Jones to send on a battery of fleet-footed types in the closing stages, with the uncapped 21-year-old, Maro Itoje, among them, the man described by the head coach in terms more suitable to Top Gear than the Rugby Football Union.
“Maro is like a Vauxhall Viva and we want to turn him into a BMW,” said Jones. “I mean that as a massive compliment. My father used to drive one [pink apparently], one of the great cars of the English automobile industry. Maro has got a good chassis on him, good wheels, he can move, but he’s got a lot of work still to do.
“This is part of his apprenticeship, to make his mark off the bench. Italy are going to be pumped for this but we have got to hold our nerve, and then the last 20 minutes is when we will get our points. We want to be able to wear them down at the start and then run them off their feet with our fresh legs.”
Jones was quizzed repeatedly as to how he hopes to cover all back- line positions with just two players, but refused to divulge his intentions. In fact, that back line is versatile, with wing Jack Nowell an accomplished centre at club level. England have plenty of options.
Jones has often challenged orthodoxy, even if he retains a great love for the traditions of all sport, once again referencing Leicester City as an example of the power of the human will to achieve great things, very much as Jones himself did with Japan. The former Brave Blossoms coach was obliged to try different tacks to beat higher-ranked teams.
“I have played flankers on the wing and once we took on Georgia with nine forwards starting and six more on the bench because we knew it was going to be that sort of game,” said Jones. “And Italy is going to be that sort of game.”
Italy surprised many on the opening weekend with the vigour of their play, the sustained quality of it, too, given that injuries had forced them to blood four new caps. Their experienced full-back, Luke McLean, returns in the only change to the team who ran France so close.
Two years ago, in Rome, England ran in seven tries in posting 52 points. If Jones’s side get anywhere near that level of performance then word will have been transformed into notable deed.