Jones con­fronts the re­turn to un­der­dogs

Eng­land’s hard year has ended talk of a global show­down to­mor­row, writes Paul Hay­ward

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport / Rugby Union -

‘You can win points be­fore the World Cup, but you can’t win the World Cup’

One happy day in March last year, Eng­land equalled New Zealand’s record of 18 con­sec­u­tive Test wins and sali­vated at the thought of a show­down be­tween the world No1 and No2 teams. The sooner these two climbed in the ring and set­tled it, the bet­ter. Did we re­ally have to wait 20 months for the de­cider?

It was one giddy af­ter­noon when Dy­lan Hart­ley raised the Cal­cutta Cup af­ter a 61-21 win against Scot­land and Eng­land girded them­selves for a Grand Slam game in Dublin, with Ed­die Jones, their coach, chal­leng­ing his play­ers to achieve “great­ness”. A 19th straight vic­tory would rip an all-time record from All Black hands and shift the bal­ance of power against the deadly win­ners of the last two World Cups.

Well, we all got car­ried away; jus­ti­fi­ably, per­haps, be­cause Eng­land were start­ing to seem in­vin­ci­ble, un­til Ire­land came out with other ideas. Back then, an English run that be­gan with Stu­art Lan­caster’s side beat­ing Uruguay in a painful foot­note to the 2015 World Cup was a vindi­ca­tion of the de­ci­sion to hire Jones. Look­ing back from their train­ing base in Sur­rey, you might think Eng­land were not as good as they ap­peared in early March 2017 but are now bet­ter than they have seemed through most of 2018.

In other words, the uni­verse is back in bal­ance. Eng­land have re­turned to the un­der­dog role at Twick­en­ham to­mor­row but are no longer stalked by cri­sis. As his team was an­nounced, Jones had his war paint back on in the broad­cast press con­fer­ence.

Was this his big­gest chal­lenge as Eng­land coach? An­swer: “I don’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. It’s a Test match against New Zealand.”

How big a state­ment would it be to beat New Zealand? An­swer: “The World Cup is there [point­ing at the end of the ta­ble] and we’ve got a num­ber of rounds be­fore the World Cup. You can win points in rounds be­fore the World Cup, but you can’t win the World Cup. So it’s of no rel­e­vance at all.”

The clash of the ti­tans has thus been down­graded, but there was cer­tainly a time when Jones saw these Quil­ter In­ter­na­tion­als as a di­rect World Cup au­di­tion. When the fix­tures were an­nounced in Septem­ber last year, he said: “Over the next year we need to con­tinue to de­velop a bul­let­proof side, that can find ways to win in matches, and we will have to work hard and be smart in what we do to bridge the gap be­tween us and the All Blacks. Our am­bi­tion is to be the No 1 team in the world go­ing into the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Ja­pan.”

Such was the ex­cite­ment in March last year that the Rugby Foot­ball Union was un­der pres­sure from some quar­ters to ar­range a game against the world No 1s sooner than Novem­ber 2018. We were al­most into An­thony Joshuadeon­tay Wilder ter­ri­tory. In­stead, Eng­land’s re­vival fell away, with a fifth-place fin­ish in this year’s Six Na­tions Cham­pi­onship and a series de­feat in South Africa.

But the match­mak­ing now looks ac­cu­rately timed. Re­al­ism has re­turned to Eng­land’s World Cup prepa­ra­tions and Jones has pro­duced two wins against the Spring­boks to re­store the hope that Steve Hansen’s All Blacks will not blast Eng­land into next week.

Some Twick­en­ham pa­trons will doubt­less tell them­selves Eng­land were born again with last Satur­day’s sec­ond-half fight­back against South Africa. The less cheery will view that 12-11 win as a nice-while-it-lasted pre­lude to a Black-out seven days later. Yet Eng­land have a bit more to draw on now.

The drawn Lions series is one men­tal bul­wark for Eng­land’s play­ers be­cause it proved New Zealand can be hus­tled and ha­rassed. An­other is the sheer tenac­ity they showed against South Africa.

The stats, ad­mit­tedly, are daunt­ing. The two na­tions have faced each other 40 times, with New Zealand win­ning 32 – an 80 per cent suc­cess rate. New Zealand have won the last five en­coun­ters since Eng­land’s stun­ning 38-21 vic­tory at Twick­en­ham six years ago. Yet four of those five losses were by eight points or less, the most re­cent be­ing New Zealand’s 24-21 win here four years ago.

In those four sea­sons, both teams have amassed record-shar­ing 18-match win­ning runs, but New Zealand re­tained their world ti­tle and con­tin­ued to pol­ish their aura. The All Blacks have won al­most 80 per cent of nearly 600 in­ter­na­tion­als played since their de­but in 1903. Against Eng­land, they could be­come the first side in rugby his­tory to score four or more tries in 13 con­sec­u­tive Tests. Against that back­drop of self-re­newal since Dan Carter and Richie Mccaw led a wave of re­tire­ments, post2015, Eng­land were, in ret­ro­spect, never likely to make it to this week­end with 50-50 billing. Hype has given way to hope.

Big chal­lenge: Ed­die Jones was bel­liger­ent at Eng­land’s team an­nounce­ment

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