I must admit to just shaking my head earlier this week when Eddie Jones started talking about making England into the greatest-ever rugby team.
Grandiose statements like that looking to a golden future may impress some at the RFU and, dare I say, many journalists and the casual fan but for me the job of head coach of England is all about the next 80 minutes — France in Paris. Nothing else, and I mean nothing else, should be in anyone’s mind.
Look after the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves, as the saying goes.
Eddie Jones should know that the France game in Paris should be the only thing on his mind
His grandiose statement will impress the RFU but will distract the players from the present
England might one day again become the best team in the world, even the best rugby team ever, but in reality who cares? And it will only ever happen by concentrating solely on the next game. England is about today and not tomorrow.
I have seen this blue skies thinking and future planning many times and was guilty of it myself when a rookie international coach, and it is just an unconscious defence mechanism to buy yourself more time. Jones is not a rookie coach.
It started to go wrong for England at RWC2015 when, a few months before the tournament, head coach Stuart Lancaster and RFU director of rugby Rob Andrew suddenly started talking about the potential of the side for RWC2019 and that England might not be at their best, might not have the right age profile until Japan — this despite four years of preparation.
It was a ridiculous statement — it showed their inexperience at this level — and England paid a very heavy price for such flawed thinking.
SIR CLIVE’S SIX STARS TO WATCH
Stuart Hogg (Scotland): I was going to opt for Finn Russell until his expulsion from the squad earlier this week but the other firecracker in the Scotland backs is the Exeter full-back who has twice been voted player of the tournament. Sublime hands, a lovely array of passes and a good repertoire of dinks ahead. Howitzer boot for long penalties when required.
Virimi Vakatawa (France): Big, very strong and quick when he needs to be, Vakatawa hails from Fiji but moved to France ten years ago and decided to make his future there. Initially a talented but erratic sevens player, he has buckled down and is arguably the form centre in Europe. Virimi v Manu will be some match-up.
Maro Itoje (England): Seems to have been around for a while but not long turned 25 with his best years ahead of him — and this is somebody who has already been a star turn in a Lions series in New Zealand and at a World Cup. Great athlete, clever forward, will increasingly be a leader for England. Feel he needs to stamp his undoubted leadership qualities on and off the pitch with this group.
Justin Tipuric (Wales): Phenomenal flanker whose brilliance was sometimes overlooked with the likes of Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau in the Welsh back row. So fast and good with the ball in hand that he could unquestionably play Test rugby at centre. Would walk into any Six Nations team despite all the brilliant flankers on show these days.
James Ryan (Ireland): The new breed of locks rather like Itoje. Tall but lean and athletic, Ryan is a superb lineout operator and a prodigious worker around the park with his carries and tackling. Very tough mentally, at the age of 23 he is already one of the best locks in the world.
Jake Polledri (Italy): Not the biggest but lean and powerful and almost unstoppable as a ball carrier, he defied belief sometimes and it can need three or four to bring him down. Italy must find a way of involving Polledri as much as possible. He can get them on the foot front.
The trouble with such long-term thinking is that players start believing they have four years to prove themselves, that they are part of the furniture and an integral part of England’s long-term plans when actually their place in the team should be on the line every time they pull on the white jersey.
Coaches likewise. I want to see a much hungrier attitude all-round.
A loss against France and the Grand Slam is gone, another poor Six Nations they could all be gone.
That is the attitude all concerned must adopt and relish. England and the English mentality excel when they are in a corner, written off and fighting for their lives. The English, especially, are not good when we start smelling the roses.
England need to concentrate 100 per cent on the next game because coming off a miserably poor non-performance in the World Cup final they have plenty on their plate and plenty of questions to answer. In fact, that game is a prime example of the point I am trying to make.
Stuart Lancaster made a similar mistake at England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup on home soil
England got badly carried away after beating New Zealand so impressively, they forgot that was worthless unless they followed it up seven days later in the final.
They started smelling the roses, seemed to lose concentration and were badly distracted in that crucial week. Eddie made a couple of selection errors and suddenly England gave their worst performance in years, just as bad as any game in 2015. That’s what happens when you let your mind wander.
They turned up 35 minutes late for the game and looked the exact opposite of a high-performance team at their peak. A week is a long time in rugby, let alone four years. ‘You are only as good as your last game’ has never been more pertinent to this England team.
Those lessons must underpin their approach to the French game where I make France favourites.
England got carried away after beating New Zealand and forgot to follow it in the 2019 final
They will have a strong revved-up scrum, possess an excellent line-out and their back row is very quick and active at the breakdown. That’s plenty to be dealing with before we even consider Antoine Dupont — probably the world’s best scrum-half — and his half-back partner Romain Ntmack who is set to take the rugby stage by storm.
England must go with their strong scrummaging pack, which means there is an argument for starting Joe Marler ahead of Mako Vunipola, although Mako does look back to full fitness.
Luke Cowan-Dickie is on fire and is perhaps a stronger scrummager than Jamie George so there is also an argument for starting with him and asking George to use his pace and dynamism off the bench. Harry Williams is England’s best tighthead by a long way and must start. Unbelievably he wasn’t in Japan.
Maro Itoje must stamp his undoubted leadership qualities on and off the pitch with this group
Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge must always be factored into the equation. They are fantastic players but there will be games when the need for absolute maximum scrummaging power means they might not start.
In the second row England need the power and line-out nous of George Kruis alongside Maro Itoje, with Courtney Lawes providing the bench option. As for the back row I see the absence of Billy Vunipola as a chance for Ben Earl at No8.
I would start with the Kamikaze Kids, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, but I’ve seen talk that Eddie is considering bringing in a more traditional six and a stronger carrying option, perhaps moving Itoje or Lawes to six. I would advise against it, these are specialist positions and Maro at six didn’t really work in the past.
SIR CLIVE’S SIX TO SURPRISE
Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester and Wales): Born and bred in Wales but Hartpury College and Gloucester have played their part in developing this brilliant 19-year-old speedster. Serious wheels but much more besides, some lovely off-loads to admire and mature beyond his years.
Ben Earl (Saracens and England): Athletic powerhouse back-rower from the same England U20 team as the Currys. That must have been some line-up. Has really stepped up to the plate this season when Saracens’ World Cup stars were away. With Billy Vunipola injured again could get considerable game time.
Alexandre Fischer (Clermont and France): Was a new name to me until I saw him for Clermont in the European Cup against Ulster and Quins when he absolutely bossed the breakdown, winning four or five turnovers per game. It was like watching David Pocock at his peak. Great body positions, could be a major find.
Ollie Thorley (Gloucester and England): A good old-fashioned eyeballs-out, full-gas wing who does everything at 100mph and keeps his opposite number honest. Relax for one second when you are marking him and he will make you pay. Rarely fails to make an impact in a game. Will keep Jonny May and Anthony Watson on their toes.
Caelan Doris (Leinster and Ireland): Rangy young back-rower who has been the standout for Ireland U20s over the last two seasons. Has made a big impression in his first year or so in the powerful Leinster line-up along with another brilliant prospect in Max Deegan, who Ireland also have in their squad.
Giovanni Pettinelli (Benetton and Italy): Italy don’t suffer for a lack of quality back-rowers and they have discovered another promising player in Pettinelli, who has impressed me during their European Cup games. Very good at the breakdown which is perhaps the one major weakness in the Italian back row. He could shine if given a run.
As for the backs, for this match especially, I’d want Owen Farrell back at ten. It was harsh of Eddie to single out George Ford at No10 as being crucial in the World Cup final defeat — as essentially it was Eddie’s mistake — but there is some truth in his observation. England right now need Farrell driving them forward at ten.
The back three of Elliot Daly, Jonny May and Anthony Watson is probably secure although Ollie Thorley will press hard on the wing and it’s a shame that Joe Cokanasiga is injured.
The midfield is again a cause of concern with Henry Slade injured and, in my team at least, Farrell moving to ten. The candidates appear to be Jonathan Joseph who is looking good, Manu Tuilagi who hasn’t been ripping up trees since Japan, Ollie Devoto who has been going well for Exeter and Fraser Dingwall at Saints.
The most important thing is to start talking about how to beat France — scrums, line-outs and restarts. They are the here and now. Frankly being the best team ever is irrelevant.
Owen Farrell should return to fly half for England’s Six Nations opener in Paris
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