Eddie Jones seeks to put the pressure onto Ireland
England coach plays down his side’s chances as they bid for third Championship in a row
England head coach Eddie Jones: The possibility of England and Ireland meeting in the Six Nations’s final game with the title on the line appeals to him. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
They’re the back to back champions, they’ve won 21 of their 22 matches under his watch, they have the same itinerary – culminating in Ireland at home – which yielded a Grand Slam two seasons ago and the bookies make them the even money favourites. But Eddie Jones, ever grinning and ever keen to employ mind games, was sticking to his guns that they are the outsiders and Ireland the favourites.
“Well, if you read the press, which I do – Ireland have got a centrally-contracted system, their players are in great nick, their three provinces have done well in the European club system. England have all these injuries and we don’t have central contracting. We’re lucky to have one side in the European club championship,” he said, in reference to Saracens squeezing into the European Champions Cup as the third best runners-up.
“So how can we compete?” he concluded, as ever, with a broad grin.
The gist of his view is no doubt an attempt to deflect pre-tournament pressure onto someone else, and Jones was thus only too glad to gently question aloud whether Ireland could handle this pressure.
“Well, it’s different, isn’t it? You go into a major tournament – and this is one of the major tournaments in the world – if you go in as favourites it comes with massive expectations. Fans, supporters, media, sponsors . . . It’s how you react to that expectation, but they’ve got a great coach and they’ve got good leadership in the team so I’m sure they’ll be able to handle it. But there’s always that question there.”
Yet when asked about the possibility of England and Ireland meeting in the tournament’s final game with the title on the line, it clearly appealed to him.
“I don’t know. If I did, I could make some money, probably get disqualified as a coach but I could make some money. Who knows? I’m sure all Ireland are worried about is the tricky game they’ve got first up against France. That’s a tricky game. I wouldn’t like to be playing France first with Jacques Brunel in charge of that team. You don’t know what they’re going to produce. I’m sure Joe’s got his side concentrating on that.”
“We’ve got mischievous Conor [O’Shea] – he’s been delving into our team, he must have cameras in our training centre. We’ve got to deal with that. We’ve got more security guys that the CIA and we still find people know our team. Look, if it happens, it’s going to be fantastic. Both teams hope it happens.”
Not that it needs it, but the sponsors and tournament organisers would certainly have been happy with the manner Jones hyped up the tournament as each coach/captain did their round of media interviews.
“You just sense there’s a great excitement about the tournament and I think that in itself generates excitement. You’ve got a well performing Ireland and Scotland, Wales have always been strong, France traditionally have been a powerhouse of Six Nations rugby and we know if you put down each of the teams on paper and you looked at the individuals of the French team, you’d say they’ve got a strong team and they’ve got a very experienced coach now,” said Jones in reference to the recently appointed former Italy coach, Brunel.
“He’s been coaching professional rugby for 20-odd years, he’s done a stint as a coach under Laporte and he’ll bring to them a wealth of experience, probably a calmness and some surety about the French style of play, so they could regenerate. And Italy’s mischievous aren’t they, and then you’ve got us.”
“So I think it’s a really good tournament and then you’ve got the geographical proximity of the countries, which makes it even more intense. I think it’s just a wonderful tournament, and you feel honoured and humbled to be part of it. Whether it’s better than the Rugby Championship it doesn’t really matter but it’s going to be a great tournament.”
Jack Nowell and Henry Slade are out for “three to four weeks”, Kyle Sinckler for “six or seven weeks”, as recent additions to a lengthy English casualty list, while Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes have been unable to train at England’s camp in Portugal this week.
Chris Robshaw is in a race against time for the England game. “Chris Robshaw would win any sort of water Olympics at the moment. He’s unbelievable in the pool. He did a water aerobics class with a bunch of Portuguese women yesterday. Apparently he was the best in class. If we play Italy in the pool he’d be all right, but of we’re playing rugby then he’d be borderline to get there.”
Yet, against all of that, Jones didn’t appear to be too worried.
“What do I have misgivings about? I can’t control anything. I’m not Donald Trump. I can’t build a wall between us and the clubs and ring-fence the players. All I can do is get the players and get them in the best physical condition and the best mental and physical state we can, the coaching team work with the leadership team of the players and bring forward the strongest team we can onto the field. You can only put 15 players on the field. I know that the 15 we put on the field against Italy in Rome will do England proud.”
Looking ahead to that game, Italy head coach, Conor O’Shea, feigned sympathy for England’s plight. “I bleed for their depth problems,” he said cheerily, before listing the Azzurri’s casualty list. “We’ve lost Leonard Sarto for six months, Campo [Michele Campagnaro] is out, Angelo Esposito, the second top try scorer in the Pro14 is out for six months, Ornel Gega is out, Feliziani is out.”
He then named a possible England team for that opening game in Rome on Sunday week of Brown, Watson, Joseph, Farrell, May, Ford, Care or Youngs; M Vunipola, Hartley, Cole, Lawes, Launchbury, Itoje, Robshaw, Simmonds.
“That’s alright. I told him today that I was naming his team when he spoke about his injury problems. It’s a bloody strong side, isn’t it? And we know the challenge.”