Wednesday 13 December 2017

Jones fears repeat of Mandela incident as England eye era of domination

Red Rose coach rules himself out of Lions running ahead of Grand Slam showdown in Paris

England's Joe Marler. Photo: PA
England's Joe Marler. Photo: PA

Chris Hewett

England may know what it is to win a Grand Slam on French soil, but remembering it is another thing entirely: the year was 1923 and the big news stories of the day - the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, the opening of Tutankhamun's burial chamber, the eruption of Mount Etna - were just a little more significant than current concerns over the poverty of Six Nations rugby or the continuing row over Joe Marler's unpleasant approach to minority relations.

But in union terms, this could be a red letter moment.

Thomas Castaignède, the impish little out-half who was probably the last playmaker to bring a touch of romance and a flash of adventure to the French midfield, reckons that if Dylan Hartley's men do the necessary this evening, it will signal the start of a new age of English domination, along the lines of the Will Carling and Martin Johnson eras.

The evidence, such as it is, supports Castaignède's view. Wales are getting on a bit, Ireland will take time to absorb the losses of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, Scotland are not blessed with sufficient playing strength to cause anything more than the occasional upset and Italy are lost in Nowheresville, having sacrificed their entire domestic game before the false god of the Pro12.

Which leaves France, the only nation capable of matching England in the numbers game, both human and financial.

And France are. . . where, exactly? No one quite knows, least of all Les Bleus themselves. Like England, they have a new coach; unlike England, they are still searching for a sense of direction.

While Eddie Jones is constructing the Red Rose attacking game on solid foundations of set-piece reliability and iron defence, Guy Novès is trying to build from the top down with a high-risk off-loading style that is failing far more often than it succeeds.

If the likes of François Trinh-Duc, Gaël Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa throw million-dollar passes out of contact tonight and are anything less than spot-on, England will be the ones who break the bank. And if the visitors win going away, there may be no holding them this side of next year's Lions tour, and possibly beyond.

Talking of the Lions, who take on the barely beatable All Blacks in a three-Test series in 15 months' time, Jones has once again ruled himself out of any kind of coaching role, Grand Slam or no Grand Slam - a decision that means England will benefit from his unusually provocative brand of motivation for the full duration of this World Cup cycle.

"I'm not interested," he said. "And the only reason for that is because I've come here to coach England.

"For me to make them the strongest team in the world in four years, I have to spend every minute on it. I don't see it's of any benefit to England for me to coach the Lions. The only reason I'd even contemplate making myself available would be a selfish one and I'm not prepared to do that."

What Jones has been prepared to do is put himself at the centre of the build-up to this game, easing the load on Hartley as skipper.

Having switched up the blowtorch to full blast with his response to Welsh criticisms of the lenient treatment of Marler (above) over his "gypsy boy" jibe, the Australian turned his attention to France in characteristically colourful fashion.

"Their best 20 minutes will be the first 20," he said. "I imagine there'll be marching bands and cockerels running around. . . everything French you can imagine.

"I'll always remember coaching the Wallabies in South Africa in 2003. We beat them in Sydney and then went over there to play them on Nelson Mandela's birthday. The bus comes late so we're late to the ground, we come back in after the worst warm-up and who's sitting in a golf cart in front of our dressing-room? The great man.

"No one can tell him to leave, obviously, so we have to wait outside. We got back in just in time to go out again. I imagine all this kind of thing will happen in Paris. I'd be disappointed if it doesn't."

Mandela? In Paris? "Well, he probably won't be there," Jones acknowledged after due reflection. "Maybe it'll be Charles de Gaulle or someone."

England should have enough. More cohesive at scrum and line-out and more competitive on the floor than they were at the World Cup (which isn't saying much), they appear to hold the important cards up front. If they can just stop the close-quarter power surges of Yoann Maestri and Damien Chouly while restricting the brilliant captain Guilhem Guirado to occasional heroics rather than continuous ones, a victory by 10 points or so is a distinct possibility.

But the new Six Nations champions know better than anyone that Grand Slam matches on the road are as difficult as they are different. Castaignède may see the early signs of Red Rose authority, but this is not the England of the first half of the '90s - still less the triumphant side of the early 2000s. The direction of travel is clear but the road is long. Without the staging-post of a first clean sweep in 13 years, it will seem a whole lot longer.

France - S Spedding; W Fofana, G Fickou, M Mermoz, VVakatawa; F Trinh-Duc, M Machenaud; J Poirot, G Guirado, R Slimani; A Flanquart, Y Maestri; D Chouly, B Le Roux, L Goujon. Reps: C Chat, U Atonio, X Chiocci, P Jedresiak, W Lauret, S Bézy, J Plisson, M Médard.

England - M Brown; A Watson, J Joseph, O Farrell, J Nowell; G Ford, D Care; M Vunipola, D Hartley (capt), D Cole, M Itoje, G Kruis, C Robshaw, J Haskell, B Vunipola. Reps: L Cowan-Dickie, J Marler, K Brookes, J Launchbury, J Clifford, B Youngs, M Tuilagi, E Daly.

REF - N Owens (WRU)

France v England,

Live, RTE/BBC, 8.0

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