Eddie Jones’s reputation for doing things his way and only his way precedes him, but even he is not immune to the clamour of noise surrounding the way the current England team attack on the eve of their return to Wales.
England’s dominant victory last weekend over Ireland, a fourth consecutive win in the fixture, leaves Jones’s side on the cusp of the Autumn Nations Cup final with a losing bonus point enough to guarantee a place against likely opponents France.
But it did not go unnoticed that England failed to fire on all cylinders in the second half as they struggled to keep possession and mount any genuine attacks. Ireland edged the second half 7-6 thanks to their late try through Jacob Stockdale, and although their defensive defiance proved the rock-sturdy base for victory, it may have been a very different story had it not been for two moments of magic from Jonny May in the first half.
Jones brushed aside concerns about England’s lack of attacking threat in the second half last week, knowing that a victory over a side the strength of Ireland’s is never one to be sniffed at.
But a week on he offered a glimpse of what he is doing behind the scenes to set England up not for Autumn Nations Cup glory, but for the big one. Jones may profess that he is choosing the strongest 23 each week, but that is with France 2023 very close to the forefront of his thinking, and everything he is doing now is to put the building blocks in place before England’s attacking game begins to be shaped once what will be a draining 2021 is out of the way.
“That’s the blueprint, but blueprints and all plans are good until you get punched in the mouth - I think he’s fighting on Saturday night,” Jones said in a timely nod towards the famous Mike Tyson quote.
“That’s the plan. You never want your plan to be in place too far ahead of the World Cup, because you are giving the opposition too much chance. What do you want your attack to be - you want your attack to be predictable to you and unpredictable to the opposition.
“So, to me, attack’s always the last thing you develop before a World Cup campaign.
“The more you become successful, the more you get analysed. Now you even get analysed for what you say in the game. No one ever used to analyse those sort of things. Now those things get analysed, you do a good play or you play a certain shape and it’s on every website, every coach is looking at it, tearing it apart. So attack is something you want to build very slowly.
“Ultimately we want to win the World Cup, that’s the main goal, but for this week, we just need our attack to be good enough for the game.”
It will be a long season for many of his England players. A 2019/20 season that restarted in August led straight into the autumn international window, with a return to clubs firmly on the horizon next month. The Six Nations will quickly follow along with the European season, before for some a Lions tour and for others a trip to north America - coronavirus permitting.
Unsurprisingly Jones needed to make very few changes to his side given the convincing manner in which they beat Ireland - and it must be stressed it was convincing despite the second half failure to cross the whitewash. The pack that just kept on tackling anything that moved in green is retained to do exactly the same this weekend, although given the form of the tournament so far Wales could be in for a nightmare come scrum time.
Wayne Pivac’s response to that threat is to hand Wyn Jones a start at loosehead prop in place of Rhys Carre, who struggled so much against Ireland two weeks ago that he was hauled off before half-tie.
Jones has been forced into one change though, with Ollie Lawrence ruled out with injury to allow the return of George Ford at fly-half. Captain Owen Farrell returns to inside centre for the first time since the 33-30 Six Nations victory over Wales in March, with Henry Slade shifting to the No 13 shirt outside him. It will be the first time that Ford, Farrell and Slade have started a Test together since the South Africa tour of 2018, when England certainly clicked in attack by matching the Springboks with nine tries apiece across the first two Tests. But something didn’t quite click with the formation and Jones elected to start Danny Cipriani in place of Ford for the third-Test dead rubber. It raised the question of why he hasn’t elected to try out the formation again since then, with the answer lying in his belief that the art of being a ball-playing centre no longer really exists as they now tend to more akin to an NFL running back, particularly when Manu Tuilagi and - more recently - Ollie Lawrence are concerned.
In that regard, this weekend’s selection is a break away from that philosophy, but Jones was at pains to stress that despite the contradiction in his selection, England are always on the lookout for a new way to play.
“There’s a better man than me who said ‘contradiction is normal’, he said. “We keep changing. We keep evolving. We keep looking to see how we can get better.
“Our big running centre at the moment, Ollie Lawrence, is not available for this game. We have rested him. He does not have the physical fitness to play this game so we look for other solutions.
“The three guys who are playing, none of them will be playing in dinner suits. They all run, carry and tackle. Playmakers play in dinner suits. They are not playmakers. None of Ford, Farrell, Slade play in dinner suits. They all run and get tackled. The whole word playmaker suggests they make plays. They have got to run, they have to kick, they have to tackle.”
Wales: Leigh Halfpenny; Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Johnny Williams, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Lloyd Williams; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee; Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones; Shane Lewis-Hughes, James Botham, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Rhys Carre, Tomas Francis, Will Rowlands, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Webb, Callum Sheedy, Owen Watkin.
England: Elliot Daly; Jonathan Joseph, Henry Slade, Owen Farrell, Jonny May; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Kyle Sinckler; Maro Itoje, Joe Launchbury; Tom Curry, Sam Underhill, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Ellis Genge, Will Stuart, Jonny Hill, Ben Earl, Jack Willis, Dan Robson, Anthony Watson.
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