Eddie Jones has billed Ireland as favourites for Saturday’s Six Nations showdown at Twickenham, pointing to how they are the most “cohesive” team in the world and highlighting how England’s player release agreement differs from their rivals.
England go into the match third in the table, a point and a place behind Ireland. Defeat would all but end their hopes of topping the pile, with a final-round trip to Paris to come. England have selection headaches with Alex Dombrandt testing positive for Covid-19 last week and not due to train before Thursday and though Sam Underhill is back in the squad, Jones said he was “a little bit off his best”. Tom Curry was, however, able to train on Monday after he was replaced at half-time against Wales with a head injury.
Before last year’s 32-18 loss in Dublin, England had beaten Ireland in four consecutive matches, including two thumping wins in 2019, but Jones highlighted their autumn campaign, in which the All Blacks were emphatically beaten, as a demonstration of their progress. Jones also made mention of how Ireland reap the benefits of having just four provinces to pick from in a system in which the union enjoys far greater autonomy over the domestic sides compared with England.
Specifically, Jones believes Ireland’s system is the reason why Johnny Sexton is still their first-choice fly-half at 36 and to further illustrate his point, Leinster have provided at least 10 of Andy Farrell’s starting XV in each of their three matches so far. He also made a pointed reference to the access he gets to his players compared with other nations and while Jones believes that disadvantage is diminished during a World Cup campaign, he claims it puts Farrell’s side in the box seat this weekend.
“They are literally, and I say that without any hesitation, the most cohesive side in the world,” said Jones. “The bulk of their team train together for the bulk of the year. So they are very well-coordinated in their attack, they are very structured, they’re very sequenced in set-plays. And they’re tough around the breakdown. So that poses a great challenge for us. But we’re looking forward to the challenge, we’re not intimidated by any team.
“Ireland are favourites for the game, they’ve been in very good form in the autumn, they’re a very settled team, well-coached by Andy Farrell. We’re in a perfect position, aren’t we? They’re flying high, we can’t get our own way or past the barrier according to most journalists.
“There are teams that have a head start at the moment, but you’ve got to be good enough to overcome those. We don’t use it as an excuse, we don’t complain about it, worry about it, it’s part of the landscape of English rugby. We can only have 25 players [after] Tuesday, other players can have 42 until Thursday so it’s all different. But once you get to the World Cup campaign start, it’s all equal.”
Last year’s heavy loss in Dublin was a surprise in that it came a week after England had impressed in victory over France but Jones revealed that defeat demonstrated the need to press the reset button. Neither Mako nor Billy Vunipola have played for England since – with Jones admitting the leadership group had become too Saracens-centric – while George Ford has appeared only as a replacement. “I think it indicated we’d run our race with that group of players, and had to move on,” he said. “We came off a good win against France, and had a chance to finish off that tournament well and didn’t do that. That was disappointing. With the Lions tour and the finish to that Six Nations it made it clear we had an urgent need to move the team on.”
Jones also paid a warm tribute to Shane Warne, the former Australia leg-spinner who died of a suspected heart attack last week, aged 52. “I was lucky enough to meet him on a couple of occasions. I remember we had a net session with the Wallabies against the Australian side when they were right at the top of their game and Warne was right at the top.
“We had a guy called Wendell Sailor, he was a larger than life character, and he was batting against [Stuart] MacGill who was the other leg spinner. And Wendell was coming in and smashing MacGill out of the nets, and Warney grabbed the ball, he winked to the blokes behind the nets and said ‘watch this’. He gave him two and floated them up and he let Wendell smash him and the third one, he bowled a bit shorter, a bit faster, and he was bowled. Then he told Wendell to go where he needs to go! Which I thought was just a great little insight into such a wonderful sportsman.”
Scotland have called up Adam Hastings for Saturday’s Six Nations clash with Italy in Rome. The Gloucester fly-half was a surprise omission from Gregor Townsend’s initial squad but has now been added to the group.