Jones: England must star in their own movie
Head coach urges his team not to sit back against the All Blacks but deliver a blockbuster
England have every intention of stealing the limelight from the All Black A-listers at Twickenham today with Eddie Jones urging his players “to ditch the popcorn and Pepsi and to make the movie themselves”. The former Australia head coach has seen many teams beaten before they have taken the field against New Zealand, overcome by their aura and their reputation.
Jones has stressed to his team the need to embrace the moment and to challenge the back-to-back world champions in every facet of the game. This is a time for England to re-assert themselves, to reclaim the status they held two years ago after matching the All Blacks’ run of 18 successive Test victories.
“You can either make the movie or be in the movie and we want to make the movie,” said Jones, whose record against the All Blacks is as good as any, with five wins in 11 matches. “We don’t want to sit there and just watch it, because that is what happens sometimes when you play New Zealand.
“You think they’re the best team in the world and you can’t compete against them. Some players sit there, eat popcorn, have a can of Pepsi and watch the movie. But 33 per cent of our players have beaten New Zealand so understand that, like any team, they have weaknesses and you have an opportunity to get at them. We don’t want to watch the movie. We want to make the movie. We want to be the film directors.”
It would be a Twickenham blockbuster if England were to win, a victory to rank with any in their history given the injury absentees and their recent middling-to-poor form. As things stand, it is a fantasy tale. But at £195 for a top price ticket, the terms and conditions ought at least to allow England supporters to dream. England are well aware, though, that if they perform as they did in the first half against South Africa then the film footage of yet another All Black victory will be in the can.
England have to be script-perfect if they are to pull off an upset. The All Blacks may have had the odd wobble this year but they still play true to the heritage of the silver fern. New Zealand are virtually at full strength, with only an injury to loosehead Joe Moody to bother them. One man forfeits, another steps forward, in this instance the former bouncer Karl Tu’inukuafe.
For all the talk of this being a World Cup examination for England, the opposite is true. It is New Zealand who are on trial, seeing this eight-day turnaround against England and then Ireland in Dublin as the Tests that they need to come through if they are to head towards Japan with the assurance they are seeking. For the All Blacks, there is no such thing as perfection, only the journey towards it. Damian Mckenzie at full-back, Jack Goodhue in the centre – staging-post auditions on the way to once again producing a potentially World Cup-winning side.
For England, it is different. Jones says that this fixture has “no relevance” to the World Cup – which is partly hokum and partly true. All teams benefit from momentum, the uplift that victory provides, as a springboard into the 2019 Six Nations if nothing else. But, equally, Jones is without too many front-line players, half-a-dozen certainties, for this to be a true assessment of how they will fare in 10 months’ time.
And yet, Twickenham is Twickenham and hard cash handed over at the gate demands a certain output on the field. In the aftermath of the grafting, gasping victory over South Africa, Jones pledged that England would not be “wearing singlets and running shorts”, for this encounter. The forecast is for rain and England are prepared for a slog. Sam Underhill fits that bill in terms of defensive chop-tackling and grubbing for ball.
Maro Itoje caught the eye for the wrong reasons in the first half last week, conceding three penalties and being sent to the sin-bin. Yet Itoje should not be damned. He is the competitive heartbeat of that pack, striving, confronting and making a nuisance of himself. The line is fine but Itoje must be cut some slack. Without such zeal and skill to combat the all-round brilliance of a Brodie Retallick or to chase down a Rieko Ioane on the wide outside, England are doomed.
Owen Farrell encapsulates that attitude. The England fly-half has declared that last week’s controversy over his tackle on Andre Esterhuizen will not prey on his mind and that he is intent on playing his normal game.
“I’m well aware of the rules,” said Farrell. “I don’t want to play to the edge of them, I want to play within them. Last week is done and it definitely won’t be in my head going into this weekend.”
England know that they have to score tries, hence the preference for Chris Ashton. “If someone makes a break, he’ll be there,” said Farrell, his ex-saracens’ team-mate.
England must find a blend of pragmatism and adventure, dealing with the high ball at the rear in better fashion than against the Boks and being careful not to play into New Zealand hands by being careless or too loose. “New Zealand apply the pressure and then feed off the scraps,” said England attack coach Scott Wisemantel. “They’re outstanding at that. We need to be harsh on ourselves.”
England have a slugger’s chance of delivering a knockout blow, but no more than that. Hollywood has made great mileage from such storylines. Now it is England’s turn. Smash hit or flop? Roll up for the Twickenham matinee show.
Practice makes perfect: Owen Farrell works on his kicking during training
Dogged opponent: Eddie Jones chases Annie, his pet Papillon, during training