Jones confronts the return to underdogs
England’s hard year has ended talk of a global showdown tomorrow, writes Paul Hayward
‘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.
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