It will be a week shy of six years since England’s last victory in Dublin when Eddie Jones leads his side into the Aviva Stadium in February, but he will do so with the painful memory of watching Ireland celebrate a Six Nations Grand Slam at Twickenham fuelling the desire to beat what is arguably the best team in the world.
England are no doubt rejuvenated from an autumn series that has seen them win three from four tests and lose to New Zealand by the matter of just one point, but Ireland remain the team to beat after an unblemished campaign that included their second win over the All Blacks in two years.
It is set-up to be a mouth-watering clash that, unusually, comes on the opening weekend of the championship as opposed to its usual billing late in the tournament. But that will not reduce what is at stake, with Jones turning his attentions towards Joe Schmidt and Ireland in what is very much a revenge mission.
“We owe them one,” Jones said after the 37-18 victory over Australia wrapped up England’s hit-and-miss 2018 with six wins and six losses.
“I’m not worried about winning the Six Nations, I’m worried about Ireland. We just need to keep getting better. We play them first up so it’s the most important game we’ve got coming forward.
“They’re the top team in Europe now. We want to be the top team in Europe. It’s pretty simple.”
It will be a belting start to the championship given that Wales travel to Paris and Scotland and Italy meet in Edinburgh, and with the World Cup to follow just six months after its conclusion, the importance of winning it cannot be over-exaggerated if any of the northern hemisphere heavyweights are to see their lofty expectations materialise in Japan.
The clash in Dublin also carries that little bit more weight given Ireland are very quickly becoming England’s bogey team. Sure, Scotland and France also beat them earlier this year, but it was Ireland who halted their winning run under Eddie Jones in March 2017 with a dominant display in Dublin, and it was Ireland who never really looked like losing when the two met on the final weekend of this year’s edition.
Since that encounter, Ireland have gone on to claim a first series victory in Australia and record impressive victories over New Zealand, Argentina, Italy and the United States – the latter two with a heavily rotated side – and the England squad are under know illusions of how tough their next match will be.
“It’s difficult,” said Jamie George after putting in arguably his best performance in an England shirt against Australia. “A huge amount of respect to them, in my eyes they’re the best team in the world at the moment so they’ve got a great playing group that’s well coached. We know that’s going to be a serious test in Dublin so we’re looking forward to it.
“I think we’ve got to emphasise that you can’t dip your toe into test matches, we saw that against Japan. That’s the thing we’ve learned some good lessons over the last four weeks and playing Ireland first up is just so exciting and something to really look forward to and something to build towards over the next couple of months.”
What could end up falling in England’s favour is that they will be a different side defensively on 2 February than they were on 17 March this year. Taking the autumn into account, England’s defence looks to be getting back to where it was in the first year under Jones and his original defence coach, Paul Gustard. But this year brought the surprise news that Gustard was leaving the international set-up in the summer to forge his own career as head of rugby at Harlequins, leaving the door open for Jones to bring in former New Zealand boss John Mitchell.
It appears to have paid off, with England conceding just one try apiece to the Springboks and All Blacks and two in the games with Japan and Australia, and with another training camp in Portugal planned at the end of January for Jones et al to tailor how they want England to defend, they may be able to find the solution to keeping Ireland at bay in a way that they were unable to do eight months ago.
“When you consider we’ve put in a new defence in the autumn – we had three training sessions to put it in and we’ve conceded six tries in four games,” Jones added. “That’s 1.5 (tries conceded) per game which is less than the Tier One Test average, so I’ve been very impressed with our defence and there’s more to come there. That will create more attacking opportunities for us.
“The reality is that Guzzy (Gustard) went to Harlequins and he maybe wishes he hadn’t gone now. I saw their win and loss record … I’m sure he’ll bounce back!
“We had to bring in a new defence coach and a new system. We had to change and changing, when you don’t get preparation time, is difficult. We’ve done that and it’s credit to Mitch (Mitchell) and the players – particularly Owen (Farrell) in that regard. Owen and Brad Shields are the leading players in defence and they’ve worked really hard to get that system right.”
But in leading that charge, Farrell has courted plenty of controversy. Just as the dust settled on his last-ditch shoulder charge on South Africa’s Andre Esterhuizen – a tackle that Australia coach Michael Cheika claimed was reviewed at a recent World Rugby referees’ meeting to demonstrate an unacceptable tackle – he landed himself in a fresh storm with a similar challenge on Izack Rodda when the Wallabies lock was on the verge of scoring a try
The incident, which was not referred to the television match official by Jaco Peyper much to Cheika’s fury, has once again cast doubt on whether Farrell crosses the line with his tackling technique too often, but Jones stood by his captain and he is now about to tell him to change his ways.
“The referee said it was good. When he says it’s not good, we’ll have a chat about it,” Jones said. “When you hit people hard, you place yourself at risk. And he hits people hard. I like people being hit hard.
“There’s a judgement area all the time in that. Obviously we want to be within the laws. Owen doesn’t try to tackle outside of the laws so he’ll keep on working on that.”
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