Ask any rugby player, amateur or professional, what it the last thing they hear before kick-off and they will almost certainly say the same thing: “Set the tone with the first hit!”
In this current England team though, that might be slightly different. On Sunday, for the fifth test in a row, Eddie Jones’ side managed to score try inside the opening four minutes. No other team in international rugby can currently boast such a record, and it means that almost immediately the opposition has been playing catch-up from the get-go.
Against New Zealand it was Chris Ashton and Japan saw Danny Care score early, but for the last three games it has been Jonny May who has gone over inside the first two minutes. A lot of credit has to go to May for his ability to switch on immediately, but this is far from an individual effort. England have changed their attitude this season as they look to set the tone from the first second in an attempt to pin the opposition back. In last year's Six Nations, England waited for Scotland, France and Ireland to make their move, and it cost them dearly.
But fast-forward a year and Owen Farrell is noticeably sending the kick-off slightly deeper, forcing the ball into the 22 in the hope that it’s cleared to touch and hands England back possession instantly inside enemy territory. From there, the rest of the team go to work, be it May or Manu Tuilagi or the Vunipola brothers. And within a matter of seconds, England find themselves across the whitewash.
“It’s attention to detail, clarity, and just building up the week right so you can come out of the blocks like we have been able to,” said scrum-half Ben Youngs.
“That involves walk throughs, making sure that absolutely everyone knows their role, and it involves making sure that you’re physically and mentally right so that when the whistle goes everyone is on-board and we’re going for it. We’ve been able to execute that in training and we’ve been able to transfer that to games so it all comes back to having very clear clarity within the side to how we want to play and where we want to go.”
This mentality is shared throughout the squad to the point that it’s clear what role each player is fulfilling on the pitch from the first whistle. When each player does that to the highest level, a juggernaut is created that is proving rather difficult to stop.
“You have to take every opportunity that comes, especially in that first 20 minutes,” adds Elliot Daly, whose first-minute break from his own half and subsequent kick set May up for his opening score after 66 seconds.
“It's a massive part of the game nowadays and in the last two weeks we've executed our plan really well in the first 20 minutes.
“You have to go into the game with a plan - obviously - but you read what is going on out there and then make certain decisions. If you have something in your head to do and you execute that it might not be the right decision so you just have to make a decision on the field and we did that really well today with the communication from the outside with the wingers and centres.”
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 44-8 victory was not May’s stunning 29-minute hat-trick or the first-half bonus point, but that fact that as soon as England came off the pitch, they all spoke from Jones down of the points that they left out on the field.
Jones claimed afterwards that he felt they could have scored as many as 20 points more than the 44 they put past the French with ease, which is not only a major statement of what they currently expect from themselves, but also a sign of the growing belief that has developed within the squad.
“It’s probably a mark of where we want to be,” adds Youngs. “It just felt there were a fair few opportunities out there, the maul towards the end of the game five metres out, we spilled that so there’s one. There was one where Jonny [May] chucks it in quickly to Ashy [Chris Ashton] five metres out - we probably want to take the lineout there.”
And while Ashton will not be grateful for May’s complete hospital pass that allowed French No 8 Louis Picamoles to line him up and knock him into next week, Youngs believes that is a sign of the excitement to play that currently resides within each player.
“He got lined up by someone didn’t he!” laughed Youngs. “It’s probably Jonny’s fault for chucking it in but it happens, the guys want to play and that’s probably the reflection of how good we are as a group and how we want to play. Everyone’s excited and wants to get their hands on the ball, we always want to make things happen.
“If the game was tight he probably wouldn’t do that but at that point we had a little breathing space and the guys want to play, get their hands on the ball and try make things happen.”
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