Saturday 7 December 2019

Eddie Jones hopeful his England chariot can hit top gear for Irish clash

Jones is trying to maintain a course somewhere between expectation and realism Photo: Reuters
Jones is trying to maintain a course somewhere between expectation and realism Photo: Reuters

Michael Aylwin

There was great anticipation in the build-up to this year's championship over how Eddie Jones's England would shape up.

It didn't particularly matter who the opposition were; the English rugby fan just wanted to see the team play. Now the first couple of hurdles have been cleared effectively the energies are shifting, and the anticipation levels remain high as a result.

For now the rhetoric has started to include the delicate notion of a two-speed Six Nations. "That was Scotland and Italy," the line goes: "How will Jones's England fare against Ireland, the champions?" is the new refrain. Then it will be top-five-in-the-world Wales.

Jones is trying to maintain a course somewhere between expectation and realism. When asked when he expects to see the best of his England team, he simply replies: "Ireland". Then he more or less admits that he is saying that to be bullish. "That's what I'm hoping for," he confesses. "Whether that happens or not, I'm not sure. You are always hoping it's going to happen next week. Generally speaking, when a coach takes over, the first year you are coaching the previous coach's team - that's the reality. The second year, you can change it by 50 per cent, the third year you can change it by 80 per cent. Which means by the third year it's your team. Now that's where you should be at your best. But I don't say that because I don't want to have any excuses. We've an England side here that's good enough to win, and I want to make sure they win."

The little touches a new coach likes to introduce are in evidence already, but there hasn't been time for the kind of dramatic revolution a man of Jones's reputation might be expected to wreak. So far, the noises from the camp have suggested even a kindly approach from the famously harsh taskmaster. The threat of his darker side, though, remains latent.

"Occasionally," says Dan Cole, when asked if he has seen glimpses. "He has a way of letting you know where you stand. If something is crap he will tell you. So far everything's been fairly positive. But at the same time, you can see. . . yes. . . when things aren't so good. . ."

Until that day, or until he has a meaningful stretch of time with the players, it is a process of information gathering. "Every day he's learning more about what makes people tick," says Cole. "You bump into him in the corridor and he will ask a question. He's building his knowledge of each individual, finding out what makes you work and what doesn't."

On the field the focus has been on the set-piece. The verdict so far: good lineout, poor scrum against Scotland; good scrum, poor lineout against Italy.

Among the tutorials from outside that Jones has set up, former England hooker Graham Dawe has been drafted in for a session. As with Jones's Japan, striking for the ball is back in vogue with England. The hookers are hooking again.

The breakdown is another area to be receiving attention. The much-longed-for David Pocock-style jackal is yet to emerge, but there have been glimpses of a dynamic approach to the tackle area. "If you look at the World Cup stats," says Jones, "England were ranked eighth in breakdown attack and eighth in breakdown defence. It's been a problem for a long time. But we are making progress."

Comparisons with Stuart Lancaster's start in 2012, exactly the same as Jones's here, are inevitable. Two wins from two is a match for Lancaster's, but Lancaster's England got away with murder in Edinburgh and Rome, while Jones's have won with relative comfort. Then again, Jones has picked much the same personnel, unapologetically building on what was already there. The fun now will be to see if he can complete a new storey in time for his first home game.


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