England train in the countdown to their Autumn Nations Cup match with Ireland
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Eddie Jones was back to his mischievous best on Thursday. After declaring that he had picked his “strongest possible team for the most important game of the season” against Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday, he proceeded to toy with Andy Farrell and his side, mixing lavish praise with barely concealed barbs.
From sympathising with Irish supporters who are frustrated that five of Farrell’s line-up had qualified for Ireland via the three-year residency rule, to questioning their scrummaging technique and challenging whether they could bring a dominant performance to Twickenham, it was classic knockabout stuff from Jones.
For a moment, it was possible to pretend that all was right with the world and we were building up to a vintage Six Nations match in a stadium full of supporters.
Yet, more significantly, his most compelling media performance since rugby’s restart also suggests this is a game that England’s head coach desperately wants to win. The Autumn Nations Cup may lack the punch of a Six Nations game, but the signs are that England are in the mood to go full-bore.
“Every battle [against Ireland] is a tough battle,” Jones said. “We were going well and Ireland beat us for a Grand Slam in 2017. We’ll never forget that. These are good battles between two good rugby countries, different sized countries, different histories, but the battles and traditional rivalry is enormous and it needs to be respected.”
Moreover, this fixture in recent times has tended to lead to long-lasting after-effects for the loser. England’s defeat in Dublin in Mar 2017 not only prevented Jones’s side from winning a second successive Grand Slam, even if they still retained the Six Nations title.
It was that defeat that cracked England’s veneer of invincibility of the first two seasons of Jones’s tenure. The following season they finished fifth in the Six Nations and lost the summer series to South Africa.
Ireland, in contrast, went on a run that saw them secure the Grand Slam in 2018 and defeat New Zealand to become the No 1 side in the world.
Yet the manner of England’s victory over Ireland in the opening round of the 2019 Six Nations had a similarly undermining legacy, ensuring Joe Schmidt’s regime fizzled out in disappointing fashion at the World Cup.
England have held the whip hand ever since, with their power game proving too much for Ireland, and Jones seems intent on tightening their grip.
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Farrell has stacked his back row and midfield with extra physicality to counter this trend, but on Thursday Jones unveiled another powerhouse line-up, reinstalling his World Cup final back row of Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Billy Vunipola, retaining Joe Launchbury at lock beside Maro Itoje and recalling his ball-carrying props Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler.
Farrell’s selection of Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell in the midfield, and his use of James Lowe as a roving gain-line breaker, was probably enough to convince Jones not to fast-track George Ford back into his starting XV.
Instead, Owen Farrell remains at fly-half, with Ollie Lawrence, another powerful carrier, given a second chance at outside centre despite his lack of opportunities against Georgia.
“He’s got good power and good ability to run lines,” Jones said. “He’s learning about defence. He’s a young player with a lot of potential and we want to give him the opportunity to develop that potential.
“How quickly he develops that potential will be how hard he works and how quickly he adapts to Test rugby. We believe this is a great opportunity for him to develop.”
It is the battle of the breakdown that Jones has identified as the area that will have a major bearing on the result, hailing Ireland as “the best poaching side in Europe” and he has charged Underhill and Curry to negate that threat.
“They go hard at the ball,” Jones said of the Irish back row. “Guys like C J Stander and Peter O’Mahony are both really good at that contest. We have a referee [Pascal Gauzere] on Saturday who really favours the contest, so that’s going to be a real battle.
“We need an aggressive, low-to-the-ground back-row, and Sam Underhill and Tom Curry are outstanding in that area.”
Jones has selected a largely inexperienced bench, with Jonny Hill, who has just returned from the concussion he sustained in training following the Six Nations victory over Italy, returning, but it is one that the head coach believes can prove decisive.
Ford will be asked to orchestrate the final quarter when England will hope to have earned some space via the draining impact of their carrying, while Hill, Ben Earl and Max Malins are also expected to be handed significant game time.
“It’s a young set of finishers for us. It shows the evolution of the team, where the team is moving,” Jones said. “It is going through another generation change. We are excited about where they can go.
“But we know that any generation change is difficult because experience is a massive thing in Test rugby and you need that time to play Test rugby to get things right consistently.”