Six Nations: Grand Slam just the first step for hungry England coach Eddie Jones

Coach’s clean sweep at first attempt claimed by instilling flair into England, writes Chris Hewett

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The Independent Online

Eddie Jones is calling it a “small step” – a choice of phrase sufficiently dismissive to make the Six Nations hierarchy wonder whether their championship is quite as important as they think it is – but when he finally winds down over a glass or three of half-decent pinot noir, the diminutive England head coach will understand that he has taken a tall man’s stride up the rugby mountainside. It is no mean feat to win a Grand Slam, especially at the first attempt.

Ask Sir Clive Woodward, who waited six years to land the biggest prize in the European game. Ask Andy Robinson or Brian Ashton or Martin Johnson or Stuart Lancaster, who were still waiting when their red-rose coaching careers came crashing around their ears. Jones has had his share of good fortune – his key players have stayed fit and healthy, while all five rival teams spent large parts of the tournament on life support – but much of the luck has been of his own creation. The Australian knows a thing or two about this tough old game, that’s for sure.

How else to explain the transformation from World Cup lowlifes to Grand Slam high-rollers? Jones did not perform major surgery in selection: apart from restoring Dylan Hartley to respectability through responsibility – a modern take on the old school bully-prefect trick – and fast-tracking the spellbinding Maro Itoje into the guts of the pack, he merely asked the wings to switch flanks and the flankers to swap shirts. That being the case, the magic must have been worked beneath the surface, among the abstractions and indefinables of the union game.

A collective CAT scan of the players who beat France 31-21 on Saturday night would reveal qualities that were not in evidence during the global gathering six months ago. Clear-sightedness has replaced uncertainty; there is a sense of togetherness where the stench of fragmentation once lingered; the attacking game has some snap and crackle about it, as opposed to the sludge served up before Christmas. Perhaps most importantly, the new physicality has blown the passivity of old clean out of the red-rose system.

Dyan Hartley celebrates with the trophy

There were dark moments in the northern reaches of the City of Light when the visitors seemed in danger of regressing – of falling back into the bad habits of the 2015ers. Jones, acutely aware of the peril, reached for the big stick and wielded it during the interval. 

Such was the effect, England were able to dominate second-half proceedings despite the growing threat of Maxime Machenaud’s exceptional goal-kicking and the untimely loss of Hartley, who was knocked cold attempting a rugrat tackle on the 24st prop Uini Atonio.

“It was probably the most forceful I’ve been during the Six Nations,” Jones said of his half-time rollicking. “I felt we were playing within ourselves while France were performing without fear. We were pretty ordinary in the first 40 minutes: we were more worried about the result than we were about playing some rugby. It was the least physical we’d been all tournament, so I told the players I wanted to see more courage from them.”

Dylan Hartley lifts the Six Nations trophy after England complete the Grand Slam

During the grimmer moments under Lancaster – the horrible defeat on Grand Slam night in Wales three years ago being a prime and relevant example – England were always able to turn to Chris Robshaw, their captain of choice at the time. One of Jones’ first acts as coach was to strip Robshaw of the captaincy, but when the heat came on here, the players turned to him again. Not for a second did he look like shirking it.

“Did you see him at the end?” Jones asked his audience in a tone of complete admiration. “He was busted, absolutely busted, but on that last kick-chase to the corner, Owen Farrell made the tackle and Chris was the second man in, even though he could barely pick up his feet. That’s the desire of a guy who still wants to be a better player.”

Jones was almost as lavish in his praise of the other back-rowers: the No 8 Billy Vunipola, who carried the ball miles once again, and the open-side flanker James Haskell, who might easily have missed the game after suffering a back spasm in training, yet dragged his beaten-up body through the full 80 minutes. Together with Robshaw, they tackled the eye-wateringly powerful French forwards to a standstill.

“Billy is a kid who plays backyard rugby at international level – he just loves it,” the coach commented. “He’s in the dressing room now, dancing around with his protein shake while all the others are sitting down with their beers. Haskell? He was outstanding in putting his body on the line. If you look at his career over 67 Tests, you can say he’s put together his best run for England in the last five.”

It is not always the case that the French consider the English to be worthy winners of these annual cross-Channel conflagrations, but Guy Novès, the Tricolore coach, confessed after this one that, while he believed his side to be well capable of beating any of the Celtic nations, the gap separating Les Bleus from the new champions was wider than the much-travelled stretch of water. For this reason, he did not feel the slightest urge to bemoan the second of the three red-rose tries, scored by Dan Cole with a little obstructive help from his fellow prop Mako Vunipola.

The other tries – a soft-shoe scamper round the edge of a ruck by the scrum-half Danny Care; a characteristically decisive finish in the corner by Anthony Watson following a delicate diagonal kick from Ben Youngs – had no whiff of injustice about them. England were good value for both.

Yet there was far more to their performance in tough surroundings than a couple of moments of individual inspiration. Itoje and George Kruis ransacked the French line-out at important moments – “They crushed our solutions,” Novès said, evocatively – while George Ford kicked beautifully from hand, repeatedly forcing his opponents into areas of the field far from the ones they were seeking to occupy. It added up to a sound tactical approach, executed with ever-increasing precision under pressure.

That was the hallmark of the finest English Grand Slammers in the modern era: Bill Beaumont’s 1980 team, Will Carling’s 1992 side and Martin Johnson’s all-conquering 2003 vintage. This side is not of similar stature. Not yet. But in the future? Maybe. As Jones said as he headed for the celebratory banquet: “This achievement ranks nowhere because it’s going to get better for England. We’ll work harder, work smarter and pick better players.”