It is conventional wisdom that the first test of any away series is the best opportunity for the touring side to mark down a victory. So it will be for England in Australia.
When I played one of the only four tests ever played in Brisbane all the way back in 1988, we were 13-0 up after half an hour with two early tries, and that was not in the script. I am not sure we quite believed it ourselves. Eventually, a certain Michael Lynagh reeled us in with multiple penalties courtesy of England’s indiscipline up front – I shan’t name names! Losing 18-15 was rough but it cost us the early momentum and the series.
Eddie Jones knows this only too well and he is trying to instil as fast as possible a hard edge of winning mentality in his squad. A Grand Slam is one thing but the quality of the opposition hardly made you stand up in amazement. A declining Irish side, the French still rather introspective and an easy touch even at home, while Wales flattered to deceive by their own admission, as if beating England in their own World Cup pool was enough for one season!
So Eddie has invoked history for inspiration and has been looking back at the really successful triple Grand Slam squad of the early nineties and of course the 2003 Grand Slam and World Cup champions. He has asked his men to consider the characters in those squads. His open question as to why there has been such a huge time gap between their success and current time is rhetorical, although he hinted at too much off field interference and commercialism. Not now though – and what’s more his squad is bursting with talent, has suffered many setbacks, and is now tasting success. It is intoxicating if you have been a long suffering Englishman!
So what is it he wants? An indomitable will to win, team trust and loyalty, good on-field decision making, multiple leadership skills, a sense of never being satisfied, being very demanding of each other and an extremely hard edge – all laced with humility. Not much then! In fact, his two reference teams had these qualities in abundance, and successful businesses recognise these attributes too. His core of Saracens probably have some if not all of these. Can they lead the way? We shall find out soon.
Fascinating that he has some of the same selection issues as Lancaster – midfield and back row. The difference is that he has developed some awesome talent to choose from and now it is time for him to make his calls. His centres are all good enough to play – Ben Te’o would be the one gamble. But he has to pick Farrell because in a game of narrow margins he could be critical with his accuracy. Mind you, historically you can’t beat Australia on penalties alone, so perhaps it is not that relevant. As for Robshaw, Haskell and Vunipola, they were easily good enough in the Northern Hemisphere but perhaps not against Hooper and Pocock. There could be a surprise there and some pace be brought in. I would.
That’s where the similarity ends – his choice as captain is indisputable, the right number 8 nailed on, and his second row now possibly the best in World Rugby after one season. But then they haven’t played against the ‘big three’ and here is where the judgements really start to be made. This squad know that too, so all talk of fatigue after a chronically long year will be laid aside. This is not to say that Australia are vulnerable but England will throw everything at them which is what we all want to see. 31-13 at home still rankles and it’s time to hand a bit back!
I sense that Eddie dreams of a 3-0 thumping, would definitely take a 2-1 series victory and may even quietly settle for a 2-1 defeat in a thrilling decider. But what he definitely has to have is an England side in Australia’s face from the off, matching and bettering them in terms of quality, desire, tactics and maturity.
The bag checkers at Sydney Airport may yet regret singling out their own Mr Jones for special treatment!
Thought of the Week
Players from my era are being interviewed to give their opinion on head injuries they suffered and any longterm effects. This is part of a strenuous effort by the medical profession and is to be applauded. It’s helpful of course, but I am not sure they will find much – most of my fellow ex-players have perfect memories on the best moments they enjoyed in their careers, although perhaps some selective memory on exactly how many yards they in fact ran with the ball to score – usually double the actual figure!
On a serious note however, they need to look at the causes not the effects – severe punishment and suspensions for head tackles and clearing out of players without the ball would be a great start. Head Injuries will halve. Oh, and when you tackle (low), remember which side to place your head. It’s remarkable to see how many pro players get hurt with bad tackling technique.