There have been plenty of ‘great’ sides in rugby union in its 146-year international history, a handful of ‘great’ England sides during that time and just three ‘great’ English teams that have secured back-to-back Grand Slams, but this Saturday that club can grow to four and the feeling that what Eddie Jones is currently achieving with his side is not so much great as it is legendary.
England have not lost since 2015, they have the chance to break the record number of consecutive Test wins and, behind the scenes, they are trying to structure a last-minute deal that could trigger the end of New Zealand’s reign as the dominant force in world rugby.
That last point may be pushing it one step too far, but it’s worth noting that England’s next match with their full-strength side after Saturday’s Six Nations finale against Ireland could be an almighty collision with the All Blacks on 4 November, should the Rugby Football Union reach an agreement with their New Zealand counterparts for an additional autumn international this year.
Whether England head into that proposed match as a ‘great’ unbeaten side, or as Six Nations champions looking to get back to winning ways, depends on this weekend’s events – as well as a two-Test summer tour of Argentina that coincides with the British and Irish Lions schedule. Jones takes his side to Dublin looking to take the next step towards his target of winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup, though the short-term plan is to add the Grand Slam clean sweep to the championship they already have in the bag thanks to their unassailable lead in the table.
Yet Jones is sending out mixed messages. He was quick to talk up England’s chance to become great if they triumph at the Aviva Stadium, yet claimed “we’re not good enough” to win the World Cup yet. He was happy to praise the team’s preparations this week, and then laid all the credit at Stuart Lancaster’s feet, his predecessor who led England to four consecutive second-place finishes in the Six Nations and their worst ever Rugby World Cup performance.
"It won't be an achievement for me, it will be an achievement for the team,” Jones said on Thursday. “We are in this together, coaching staff, staff and the players, we all work together. The guy I think again that should get a lot of credit for the team's success is Stuart Lancaster. He was the guy that brought this team through, went through some hard yards with them, most of the players are still the same.”
That record is harsh on Lancaster, as though he was unable to see England over the line, Jones is right in crediting the current Leinster senior coach with planting the roots of this potential record-breaking team. "I know he's batting on the other side now so I don't know who he's barracking for on Saturday,” Jones added, smile firmly on display.
“I don’t deserve the credit because I’m honoured to coach England and I got them at a good stage. A lot of the groundwork has been done. We have a fantastic group of players and the credit belongs to them.”
But something is clearly different. A team has never gone 18 Tests without a blip along the way apart from the All Blacks, the side that has won the last two World Cups. So what is England’s secret?
“I think as a team it is definitely the best team I have ever been a part of,” scrum-half Danny Care said. “You look around the changing room and there are a lot of world class players in a lot of positions. But we won’t get ahead of ourselves and the aim is to be No 1 and we still have a lot of work to do for that. Winning that next game will be a huge achievement for us first.
Care adds: “Everything seems to be clicking and going in the right direction. It’s not just our attack or our defence, it’s everything. The set-piece, the boys up front are doing an unbelievable job setting the bar there, giving us some fantastic ball.
“The boys just set the standards on and off the field, I’ve never seen such hard work from the lads, from the coaches and the backroom staff, everyone who’s on this journey to try and be the number one team in the world. To try and leave no stone unturned to get there.”
Of course, England haven’t really won anything yet. Eddie Jones may have disagreed this week with Sir Clive Woodward’s admission that not winning the Grand Slam would feel like failure, but it would for this team, and Jones knows it. But midway during his press conference on Thursday, the Australian allowed himself to open up to the media and offer a glimpse of the character that has transformed this side.
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
Six Nations team of the weekend - round four
1/15 15. Leigh Halfpenny (Wales)
The full-back flourished in bringing George North into the game as he repeatedly joined the back line to give Wales an extra man in attack. He tackled well, with a memorable stop on Rob Kearney halting an Irish attack in full flow. Has put himself back into the running for the Lions berth.
2/15 14. George North (Wales)
Back to his devastating best with two tries this week. His first was a brutal display of power as he carried both Simon Zebo and Keith Earls over the try line to score, while his second was the result of a great drive from the Welsh pack. A mazy run towards the end of the victory over Ireland triggered one last attack as his side searched in vain for the bonus point.
3/15 13. Jonathan Joseph (England)
A brilliant performance provided a timely reminder of what he is capable of. Three tries, each of differing styles, paved the way for England’s stunning 61-21 victory over Scotland. The first try saw Joseph display his pace and power, the second one came from dazzling footwork and the third saw him cut a lovely inside line to break cleanly from short range.
4/15 12. Owen Farrell (England)
After his horror show against Italy, Farrell was back to his best again to convert all but one of his kicks at goal – the one he missed was from his own half – and he was much smarter with his kicking to touch following the errors that littered his display a fortnight ago. Brought Joseph into the attack superbly, and finished the game at 10 once more.
5/15 11. Virimi Vakatawa (France)
A great week for the French wing as he scored a devastating try that put Italy out of the game and racked up more metres than anyone else this week, making an average of more than 10m per break. He beat eight defenders and made four clean breaks, and provided a display that proved just what a dangerous open-field runner he can be.
6/15 10. George Ford (England)
Ford was able to take the fight to Scotland with the pack providing him with front-foot ball to work with. The fly-half linked up superbly with Farrell outside him, and also brought his three-quarters into the game with devastating results.
7/15 9. Rhys Webb (Wales)
A strong performance from Webb saw him create the first try for North with a smart supporting run to take an offload from Scott Williams and release a beautiful wide pass for Halfpenny to run on to. He was alert in defence and got the better of Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray in their battle for the Lions No 9 shirt.
8/15 1. Rob Evans (Wales)
A strong performance from the loosehead against an Irish scrum that until now had gotten the better of all its opponents. Carried multiple times, albeit with little success, but that took its toll on the Irish defence as it tired.
9/15 2. Guilhem Guirado (France)
The standout hooker this week as the French captain led by example, making an impressive 31 metres with the ball in hand and 11 tackles in defence, not to mention sealing a turnover in the process.
10/15 3. Rabah Slimani (France)
Joins his skipper in the front row after displacing Uini Atonio in the side and delivering much better performances. An impressive showing in the loose.
11/15 4. Joe Launchbury (England)
A candidate for player of the tournament. Launchbury has excelled on his return to the Test fold, and he once again led by example as he made a phenomenal 22 tackles against Scotland, as well as enjoying success with the ball in hand.
12/15 5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)
Return to form this week as he put his body on the line, making 18 tackles and 14 carries. He also disrupted the Irish lineout, stealing one throw on his own 5m line, but his best performance came in terms of his decision-making as he got all the big calls right.
13/15 6. Sam Warburton (Wales)
A brilliant performance in defence saw Warburton set the tone for Wales’s physical dominance over Ireland. He made more tackles than anyone else on the pitch in Cardiff, and he looks to be suited to not having the burden of the captaincy hanging over him.
14/15 7. Kevin Gourdon (France)
France have found their natural replacement for Thierry Dusautoir as Gourdon once again displayed his talents in the win over Italy. He carried well for more than 50 metres, and did his job in defence to slow down the Italian attack at the breakdown.
15/15 8. Nathan Hughes (England)
Scotland made the mistake of not double-marking him, and he ran riot as a result. The Wasps No 8 appeared to send out a message that the returning Billy Vunipola would not be taking his shirt easily, and made an impressive 74 metres from 11 carries.
It came in a telling few minutes where he wrote off their chances of challenging for the World Cup if it were to be played now, before revealing what England need to do to take the next step towards that very target.
“We don’t have the density that we need to win a World Cup in terms of leaders,” he said. “Having said that we’ve progressed a long way in the 14 months we’ve been together.
It is like climbing up a mountain; every time you go to another level of the mountain it becomes more unstable
“We’ve gone from a team that had one or two self-reliant players to maybe three or four, going up to five or six, so we’re getting there. It’s going to take a lot of work to get a team good enough to win a World Cup because we’re not good enough at the moment.”
Less than five minutes later, and faced with a question on how the side is dealing with imminent “greatness”, Jones added: “I think the team has embraced it. To go from where we go to greatness takes another step of endeavour. It takes greater focus, it takes greater persistence, it takes greater emotional output.
“It is like climbing up a mountain; every time you go to another level of the mountain it becomes more unstable. The ground becomes more unstable, your ears hurt, your nose hurts. It is exactly the same when you are climbing the ladder of success - everything becomes a bit harder. And sometimes you have got to just stop and say, ‘Right, this is what is ahead of us.’ And probably we weren’t very good at that. In retrospect, that’s my fault. We have done that and I think the players have understood the challenges ahead and re-equipped for the challenges ahead.”
He spoke as if the journalists in the room at England’s Pennyhill Park training base were facing Ireland this weekend, and the way he detailed where his side now find themselves made it easy to understand why professional players would buy into his mantra. Jones took a spiky approach last week and got the response from the team he wanted by thrashing a rapidly improving Scotland side. This week, he was far more assured, responsive and revealing, and while he has also spoken of the risk of complacency, you sense that the overwhelming feeling inside the head coach, and the squad, is one of imminent greatness.Reuse content