Wednesday 21 March 2018

Jones knows England face sterner Tests in brave new world

England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters
England head coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Henry Browne/Action Images via Reuters

Hugh Godwin

Among the many quips and barbs bandied about by Eddie Jones in an eventful first four months as England's head coach, the sporting staple "the more I practise, the luckier I get" has yet to pass his lips, but it would be apt. After the savage letdown of the World Cup for the host nation, Jones knew there was a tide of talent available to him which it was his good fortune to be taking at the flood.

That it has led on to a Six Nations Grand Slam at the first attempt is testament to the Australian's skill as a manager, the quick adaptation to new roles by his assistant coaches, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, and, it must be said, the mostly humdrum opposition at hand.

Global domination is Jones' stated aim - a statement of the obvious, perhaps, so there is no doubt where he feels England should stand - and even as the champagne corks popped last night, the world rankings continued to be a sobering sight; the top three teams are New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The fixtures coming England's way this year will give a truer guide to their position and potential, with a cash-cow match against Wales at Twickenham in May followed by three Tests in Australia in June and the visits of South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia in the autumn.

Jones acted decisively after October's pool-stage World Cup demise. He switched Chris Robshaw to his best position at blindside flanker and blooded youngsters Maro Itoje, Paul Hill, Jack Clifford and Elliot Daly. By being able to pick Dylan Hartley - always England's best hooker and a captain in the making if only he could stop getting suspended - and avoiding ruinous injuries, England have enjoyed a golden few weeks. These are the foothills of what Jones hopes will be the summit of a World Cup win in Japan in 2019.

We know already it will be a raucously engaging journey because Jones challenges lazy opinions and fosters debate. His broad-brushstroke pre-match verdicts on the opposition - "they're well coached", "they kick 60 per cent of the time" and so on - will not feel so fresh after three, four or five games against Wales, Ireland and the rest. Results will be the measure of him and his team.

But his humour reminds us that sport can be fun. It brings to mind a Six Nations match I covered in Rome in 2001, and bumping into Rob Henderson in a car park outside the Stadio Flaminio. He had just scored three tries for Ireland, he was puffing on a celebratory cigarette and not far away there was a large glass of Chianti with his name on it. Yet he was reaping the rewards of a new training regime begun the previous summer. "I wanted help and I wasn't getting anywhere with athletics clubs," he told me. "So I went to the Yellow Pages and looked under 'F' for fitness."

So here's to Jones and to players continuing to see the lighter side and to the media giving them the intelligent space in which to do so.

Elsewhere in the Six Nations, there were only crumbs of comfort around England's feast. The Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg has been joyous to watch, and he belongs to that elite bracket of player who operate on a plain that leaves most contemporaries gasping for air. Hogg would never say it, but how much better might he be if he wasn't surrounded by too many comparatively ordinary confrères, even if Scotland's pack is improving? Perhaps we will see Hogg's true range of gifts in a Lions jersey in New Zealand next year.

Jamie Roberts is another man who could lay claim to a place in a World XV. This may seem perverse when the statuesque Welsh centre possesses a much more confined skillset than Hogg's brand of innovative thinking and spatial awareness. Yet Roberts, at the age of 29, is transcendent in a different way, rising above the rigours and routines of Six Nations parochialism to take control of both team-mates and opponents, particularly in Wales' win over Scotland. If he disappeared into a fog of mediocrity for 65 minutes at Twickenham last week it was only down to a dearth of quick ball at the tight set-piece and breakdown. Wales are still young and could re-emerge to challenge England; ditto Ireland if everyone gets fit and the likes of the Ulster inside centre Stuart McCloskey hit the heights.

With four Antipodean head coaches, and players of all kinds of extraction from England's Vunipola brothers and the returning wrecking-ball Manu Tuilagi to Ireland's and Scotland's South African 'project' players, the Six Nations has never been more cosmopolitan. But it is also hidebound.

The year 2019 is not only a target but also a possible turning point, when new broadcast contracts may enable a new global fixture schedule. Europe's emerging countries, led by Georgia, must be given their head, either through promotion into the Six Nations or as part of a new tournament to replace it. Comfortable certainties must be challenged, crusty methods revised, and if it means doing away with something that has worked well in the past, so it must be done to make the future even better.

Sunday Indo Sport

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