The Australian had no idea that the only smiles come Saturday night would be in Rome, where England celebrated their third Six Nations title in five years from the comfort of the team hotel. Back home, a nation in meltdown didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, with news of England’s crowning glory swallowed whole by the government’s decision to place the country back into lockdown from Thursday.
The celebrations at the full time whistle of England’s 34-5 victory over Italy were muted, and understandably so. The scoreline was not impressive by the usual standards, with the winning margin significantly smaller than it has been over the past three years and it proved the fewest points they have scored against the Six Nations whipping boys since 2013. Was it a sign of the nerves? Probably, although the lack of preparation cannot have helped after last weekend’s cancelled match against the Barbarians.
Asked if he felt enough, captain Owen Farrell gave a typically Owen Farrell answer: “I don’t know."
Of course, how could he know? Thankfully, two hours later once the title was confirmed, Farrell was able to give a more educated answer, speaking in the knowledge that the team - his team - had done enough to wrestle back the Six Nations title after two years without it.
“This is a great group of players,” the skipper hailed. “We really think we can continue to get better and achieve more for England. We’re turning our attentions now to the Autumn Nations Cup, we want consistent success and we’re working hard to be better in each and every game.”
That’s perhaps the most exciting thing about this England squad. It’s not the team that won the 2016 Grand Slam, or the one that went back-to-back with Six Nations titles the following year. It’s not the team that reached the Rugby World Cup final either, with so many changes forced on Jones by injuries and absences.
The fact that England were able to do just enough of what was required with seven changes to the side that downed Wales seven and a half months ago speaks volumes of the squad depth that the national team possesses. Jonny Hill came into the side to make his debut, and while it was not perfect - no one wants to be shown a yellow card on their first international appearance - he was pivotal in the lead up to Ben Youngs’s second try that proved the one that broke the Italian resistance.
With George Kruis departing for Japan, Jones wanted to find a new man to lead his lineout that allows Maro Itoje to focus on what he does best: being the most disruptive and dominant power forward currently in the global game, as he demonstrated once again on Saturday evening. In Hill, Jones may have found his man.
The Australian is never one just to throw around international caps, which is why it was so relieving to see Jones unload his replacements in its entirety. With three uncapped players among it, there was always the danger that Jones would only rotate if he had to, but Ollie Lawrence, Ollie Thorley and Tom Dunn all made it onto the field to ensure they collected their first caps.
Thorley looked assured at this level, and while he will have to bide his time behind Jonny May and Anthony Watson, he showed a welcome physicality required to play Test rugby - even on the wing. Lawrence wasn’t as comfortable in the 13 minutes he was afforded, but he has shown plenty in the Premiership to show he is one to watch for the future. His time will come.
But perhaps the most ineffective debut proved the most warming. Tom Dunn has bided his time, in a similar way to how Jamie George had to do so when Dylan Hartley was in occupancy of the No 2 shirt. The Bath hooker has been in and around the England squad for the last three years, yet fate has never looked kindly on him. Even when he was due to come on in Rome, it appeared that play would continue until the clock turned red, robbing him of his first cap. It didn’t, thanks to a knock-on, and Dunn arrived to receive his first cap.
Why was it so rewarding? The video put out on the RFU’s social media channels of a tearful Dunn speaking to his family back home helped to remind us why this has revealed itself to be a very likeable England squad. From 100-cap Youngs to one-cap Dunn, every one of them seems to understand the pride that comes with playing for your country. That hasn’t always been the case with the international team, as scandal has never been fair away from a sport where booze and mischief tend to go hand in hand.
But in this, the world’s most desperate time in a generation, the current crop of England players are living up to their word to their word of putting smiles on faces, whether it be their own or those of their fans. That will be crucial in these upcoming weeks of lockdown as elite sport continues and England embark on their Autumn Nations Cup campaign, and that, far more than a Six Nations title, should be applauded.
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