Eddie Jones expects New Zealand to spring a surprise against England in this Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semi-final, but believes his players’ experience facing the All Blacks over the past two years has prepared them to deal with the unexpected.
Jones named his side that will attempt to see England through to a World Cup final for the first time in 12 years, with George Ford restored to fly-half at the expense of Henry Slade in the only change to the starting XV.
If they are to achieve their goal, England must become the first team to defeat the All Blacks at a World Cup since 2007, who have developed a habit of peaking at the right time with a style that has evolved over the years. That has included Steve Hansen’s side keeping something up their sleeve, which Jones fully expects this weekend.
But Jones is also adamant that last November’s narrow defeat by the All Blacks, as well as the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour which 13 of his players experienced, has armed them with the knowledge needed to knock off the reigning world champions.
“New Zealand have always show a propensity to change the order of the way they play and it will be up to our team to understand that clearly at the start of the game,” Jones said. “They always have some sort of surprise first-phase attack. If you look back to 2011 World Cup, they scored that try through the middle of the lineout. All we can do is be creative in training, think about different situations and teach the players to handle it. One thing about playing New Zealand is that you have to be alive all the time, they are always in the game, always looking for opportunities – but our players are equipped for that and ready to go.
"I think traditionally when you play against New Zealand the pace and intensity of the game gets you. I think if you have experienced that before you understand what you have got to prepare yourself for and most of our squad have been involved in those games so we've got great experience.
"They know what New Zealand's going to bring to the game and they have practised this week to be equipped for it. We are ready for the game, we've had two-and-a-half years to prepare for this game so we are ready to go.
"It's going to be a great contest, isn't it? Two heavyweights, one dressed in black, one dressed in white. You couldn't think of a better scenario."
Jones decided against making more changes to his side despite the All Blacks choosing a gameplan that will see them target the lineout, with lock Scott Barrett named at blindside flanker to give them more options than England’s jumping trio of Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry. Jones could have brought lineout brain George Kruis back into the mix or moved Lawes to six to give his side alternative plans, but decided that the back-row pairing of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill has been too impressive to split up.
"We've got four great locks in the squad and it's a hard decision every game on who we are going to start with and who we are going to finish with,” Jones said. "We believe George Kruis will be exceptional for us finishing in the second half and Courtney will throw himself around a bit in the first half."
It means that Ford’s return is the only change to the side that beat Australia last week with Slade dropped to the bench, though Jones believes it is the right move for this match.
"Every game we have a look at the conditions, the opposition, what we think we need to do, what we need to take away from the opposition and this is the best fit for us,” he added.
"It’s horses for courses. We just feel it's the right combination this week.
"Work-rate is going to be important. Whenever you play against New Zealand your work off the ball is going to be massively important. They like to move the ball around, they are very good on transition and George's work-rate off the ball has been absolutely exceptional.”
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