'This is not a Six Nations squad. This is a squad to play against Ireland' - Eddie Jones hatching plan to dethrone champions
Eddie Jones has decided to change the way he brings his players back to full fitness after deciding to leave co-captain Dylan Hartley at home for next week’s pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal, despite the impact that his leadership has had on the squad over the last three years.
The 32-year-old has not played for Northampton Saints since 21 December and, having not shown any signs of being close to returning from the “grumbly knee” that the club have described he is suffering from, Jones has elected to leave him out of his plans for the Portuguese training camp in the Algarve as well as the opening-weekend trip to Dublin to take on reigning champions Ireland.
Jones does not expect Hartley to be fit to face France the following weekend either, and with that in mind he has elected not leave Hartley at home as his 35-man squad prepares to jet out to Vilamoura early next week.
“We have taken a completely different approach to the camp this time,” Jones said on Thursday. “We are specifically focusing on the Ireland game, so we are taking players who we believe will be available to play against Ireland, so we are not taking any longer-term rehab players.
“Dylan is not going to be available for Ireland, at the outside [chance] maybe Wales we are looking at. We have had a good discussion on that. It is the same with [Chris] Robshaw. We have not taken him to Portugal for the same reason that we will allow him to rehab and get himself right, and hopefully be available for selection further down the track.”
Jones added that Robshaw is ahead of Hartley in his rehabilitation, potentially returning for the second round of the tournament against France, but while the pair join the likes of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph and Sam Underhill in being unavailable due to injury, Jones is working with a – for one – rather healthy squad.
The returns of brother Mako and Billy Vunipola, plus Joe Launchbury and Maro Itoje’s recovery from injury, hands Jones a hefty boost ahead of the Six Nations, while centre Manu Tuilagi looks set to play a much bigger role after getting his longest run of rugby under his belt without injury since Jones took the international job.
England will need all of those players to be at their very best though at the Aviva Stadium in little over a fortnight’s time if they are to inflict what would be only Ireland’s second defeat in their last 20 matches. That is why, as he explains, Jones has selected this squad not with the Six Nations championship in mind, but with sole aim of beating the Irish.
“I think we are in a really good position,” he added. “We are excited about the opportunity ahead of us. Obviously it is a World Cup year so that is always at the back of your mind, but clearly our focus is on beating Ireland. It is the first game of the tournament, it is the most prestigious tournament in the northern hemisphere. We want to make sure we put our best foot forward and I think the squad we have got is a very strong squad, and very capable of beating Ireland.
“We specifically want to beat Ireland. The squad we have here is just a squad to play against Ireland – it is not a Six Nations squad. It is a squad to play against Ireland.
“They are a good team and deserve all the praise they’ve been getting. They have a number of exceptional players in their team – a very methodical game plan that maximises the strength of their team.
“We need players at their absolute best, chomping at the bit and for that they need to be hungry. I’ve got a pretty good idea of my best 15.”
Despite this, the decision to leave Hartley at home for what is essentially two weeks in camp remains a risk given how the players have handled his absence in the past. The 2018 summer tour of South Africa saw England lose a series they should have won as they lost their way in the first and second Tests, with a lack of leadership identified as one of the most obvious areas of weakness.
But Jones hopes the return of senior players like Launchbury and the Vunipolas will help ease that concern, and help the team get back to doing what they did best during his first two years in charge – playing English rugby.
“English rugby is based on a strong tradition of being organised, and that means the set piece and defence in rugby,” he explained. “That’s what we are good at and we then develop the ability that when we create opportunities we score points.
"The game is about contest at the moment, that’s where it is in the cycle at the moment – scrum, lineout, kick-off and breakdown. We have made some substantial improvements around the breakdown since the last Six Nations.”