The inaugural Autumn Nations Cup has not always felt like a substantial meal but something more nourishing might just await at Twickenham. It is a final, for a start, with a title at stake and, glory be, there will be 2,000 real live fans in attendance. If ever there was a year to be grateful for small mercies, this is surely it.
It also offers England a chance to show they can respond to all-or-nothing end games rather better than proved the case in last autumn’s Rugby World Cup final. This fixture, against a below-strength France, is nothing like as pressure-laden but Eddie Jones is determined not to make the same mistakes he now thinks contributed to England’s downfall against the all-powerful Springboks.
With the benefit of hindsight Jones feels England almost tiptoed towards the biggest game of their lives, underestimating the need to take a fresh guard mentally in the days after smashing the All Blacks in the semi-final. “In retrospect we probably didn’t attack the week like we normally do. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision. Sometimes you think: ‘Well, we’ve just got to continue.’ In sport there’s no such thing as continuing, you are either going up or you go down. We’ve made a big effort this week to attack the week, not to sit back, and to see where we can improve our game.”
Hence the selectorial thinking, too, behind an England starting XV which contains a record 813 caps – compared with France’s paltry tally of 68 – and sees just one change, with Anthony Watson returning in place of his injured Bath teammate Jonathan Joseph. It might seem the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack une petite noix but Jones clearly reckons there is still plenty of time left before the next World Cup in 2023 to examine the claims of Dan Robson, Max Malins, Ben Earl, Jack Willis and Ollie Thorley. More valuable, to his mind, is sending out a message to all and sundry that England, having won the 2020 Six Nations, remain fully committed to raising the bar every time they take the field.
And if world domination is the stated aim, what better role model for Jones to choose on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme than cricket’s incomparable Vivian Richards? Even the Master Blaster’s slow, deliberate swagger to the crease was a warning to the bowler and, sure enough, the ball would usually disappear to all parts. “We’d like to play like Viv Richards used to bat,” insisted Jones, glossing over the fact the West Indian legend played his last Test before the majority of this England squad were born. “Everyone wants to play beautiful rugby and we’re no different. Sometimes the conditions are conducive to that and sometimes they’re not, but we want to be a dominant force in world rugby.”
None of this will mean much to the French but Jones reckons England are currently more like Australia’s captain Steve Smith: not particularly elegant but increasingly hard to dig out. “His ability to control the bowler is fantastic and that’s where rugby is going,” insisted the head coach. “At the moment defence is in the ascendancy but teams will work out how to attack rush defences and we’re in the process of developing our own attacking system to do that. It takes time.”
There have been few instances of England hitting much off the square, never mind over the pavilion, in an attacking sense over the past month but this weekend really should offer the opportunity to flex their muscles at some point. While the new-look visiting side contains several excellent up-and-coming talents, even the organisational genius of Shaun Edwards will be hard pushed to knit Les Bleus into a collective unit capable of conquering a venue where no first-choice French team has beaten England since 2007.
It is easy to see the visitors, with nothing to lose, displaying plenty of early spirit but, as Georgia, Ireland and Wales can testify, getting smashed by Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and England’s other enforcers for 80 minutes soon becomes hard work, particularly with temperatures forecast to be on the froid side of chilly.
Nor is it terribly likely that England will opt to throw caution to the winds, at least not until their forwards have propelled them into a significant lead. According to Jonny May, the sharpest knife in the Red Rose tool box, the notion of wingers floating around on the periphery like nervous debutantes is a throwback to a now-defunct era. “When I was young I used to think being on the wing was all about being in space, scoring tries, and making line-breaks. Now my mindset more than ever is chasing kicks, leading the defensive line, communicating, winning in the air. I build my game around that.”
Given May has already scored seven tries in seven Tests against France, there must be a decent chance of him adding to the brace he scored when England were last beaten, in Paris in early February. It could be that these two sides have several high-profile duels to come in the next few years and it is already clear Jones will not rest until England’s 2019 final pain has been assuaged. “You never put it to bed. We weren’t good enough in that World Cup final. Even if you win the next World Cup, it stays with you. And that is what drives you to keep on wanting to get better. In any sort of sport you are in a cycle of success and failure – as soon as you’ve had success, failure is sitting next to you. And vice-versa.”
E Daly (Saracens); A Watson (Bath), H Slade (Exeter), O Farrell (Saracens, capt), J May (Gloucester); G Ford (Leicester), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Bristol), M Itoje (Saracens), J Launchbury (Wasps), T Curry (Sale), S Underhill (Bath), B Vunipola (Saracens). Replacements: L Cowan-Dickie (Exeter), E Genge (Leicester), W Stuart (Bath), J Hill (Exeter), B Earl (Bristol), D Robson (Wasps), M Malins (Bristol), J Marchant (Harlequins).
Which is why this weekend, psychologically, looms as a potential springboard to a better place. “When you lose a big final like that it stays with you for a long time,” confirmed Jones. “You reflect and think: ‘I should have done that, would that have made a difference?’ Then you consistently hear criticism of what you’ve done, which drives you a little bit more. You have got to learn from it. We are absolutely blessed within 13 months to have the opportunity to play in a final again. We lost our last final, so the big thing is to win.”
If his full-strength side fail to deposit France’s callow understudies straight back over the sightscreen, Viv Richards should sue.
There is a danger of overreacting when it comes to any England squad announcement, let alone a training squad for a camp which lasts three days and includes only one training session on the field. England lock Charlie Ewels’ understanding of what lies ahead for the 45-man squad in camp is “loads of admin, kit fittings, suit fittings, headshots in five different kits…” The masterplan of how to win the next Rugby World Cup will not be drilled into the attending players in between smiling for the camera.
Although, you become so accustomed to reading the same names listed in each England squad over the years that when a familiar player is suddenly out of the mix, even for a three-day meet-up, eyebrows are raised. Elliot Daly is injured, but the message from Eddie Jones to the quartet of high-profile omissions who are not – Jamie George, Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and George Ford – was clear. “They probably haven’t been at their best over the last period of time, so we are giving them the opportunity to find their best.”
You can see Jones’ point with the first three. George failed to make the Lions Test squad in South Africa. Mako started the second Test but Wyn Jones was always the preferred choice at loosehead when fit. Billy was overlooked for the tour altogether.
Ford is a more interesting case. No, he wasn’t part of the Lions tour either. But anyone who watched him help dismantle Exeter last weekend would surely take issue with the idea that the England fly-half is searching for any form. Those searching for proof need to only watch Ford on Friday evening when he takes on Gloucester at Kingsholm.
“You can see by the way he played the sharpness he had in his game,” Leicester’s head coach Steve Borthwick said about Ford after defeating Exeter. “He’s only going to get better and better. I watch him on the training field and he’s sharp. He controlled that game brilliantly.”
No England player has won more caps under Jones since the head coach took over in 2016, with Ford making 60 appearances. Only a single ‘tier one’ player in the world has made more Test appearances in that timeframe; Australia captain Michael Hooper.
Former All Blacks prop Bill Bush, who played in NZ Māori teams selected by Nathan in the 1970s and toured Wales with the team when the latter was manager in 1982, said his death would “rock the Māori world, for sure’’.
Bush credited Nathan for helping to revive Māori rugby after he retired from playing. He was a New Zealand Māori selector between 1971-77.
“He was a proud Māori, and a guy with his mana encouraged a lot of guys backed him,’’ Bush said. “We all got on board with him.
“He had mana because he was such a great player. Mana, for Māori, is very important. If you have no mana, you struggle.’’
Respected for his bravery on the field during his playing days, Nathan wasn’t a big talker off it.
Bush said Nathan wasn’t always comfortable making speaking in public, but there was a different side to him when he was among friends and players.
“He was a man of few words. He wasn’t into giving speeches, he wasn’t that sort of guy.He was very shy. But amongst us Māori boys he had no problem.”
Nathan played 88 games for Auckland after making his debut as an 18-year-old. Late in the 1960 season, he scored a dramatic last-minute try for his province against Canterbury which fullback Mike Cormack converted to retain the Ranfurly Shield with a 19-18 win, the All Blacks website reported.
He was a former President of the Auckland Rugby Union, Patron of the Auckland Rugby Union and an Auckland Rugby life member.
Nathan was also given the honour from New Zealand Rugby to run onto the field and start the proceedings for the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 at Eden Park.
He was honoured by Auckland Rugby for his commitment and devotion to the union as a player and administrator with the creation of the Waka Nathan Challenge Cup, which Auckland Rugby’s premier club teams compete for.
“It is with great sadness that Auckland Rugby acknowledges the passing of Waka Nathan,” a media release from Auckland Rugby said.
“Waka was a man of incredible mana who devoted a large part of his life to Auckland Rugby. Waka will be missed greatly, and our condolences go out to the Nathan whānau at this time.”
England Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson has become the first sportsman to pledge his brain to the Concussion Legacy Project.
The 43-year-old was diagnosed with early onset dementia last year and cannot remember playing in England’s World Cup final win over Australia in 2003.
Thompson said: “I’m pledging my brain so the children of the people I love don’t have to go through what I have gone through.
“It’s up to my generation to pledge our brains so researchers can develop better treatments and ways to make the game safer.”
The Concussion Legacy Project, which investigates the consequences of brain trauma, is backed by the Concussion Legacy Foundation and the Jeff Astle Foundation.
Dawn Astle, who set up the Foundation in her father’s name, hailed the initiative as a further move towards fully understanding the impact of dementia in sport.
Astle said: “Brain donation is the most valuable gift of all for future generations of footballers.
“It may be many years before this jigsaw is complete, but by adding each piece, one at a time, it is the only way we shall understand the true picture and so be able to make a better future for others.
“The Jeff Astle Foundation encourages families of athletes and Veterans to donate the brain of their loved one to the Concussion Legacy Project.”
In a separate development, former Premier League players including Craig Hignett, Gavin McCann and Danny Graham have been confirmed to take part in a “no headers” charity match in Spennymoor on Sunday.
The match, jointly staged by the Head for Change charity and the Solan Connor Fawcett Family Cancer Trust, will allow headers only in the penalty box in the first half, and restrict all heading after the break.
Head for Change co-founder Judith Gates, whose husband Bill Gates played for Middlesbrough and Spennymoor and has been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative condition, said she hoped the match would serve to raise awareness.
“It’s important to stress that neither of the charities are aiming to ban heading from the game, but what we recognise from the conversations that are going on amongst the press, at training grounds and in pubs is what will the game look like if we reduce heading,” she said.
“Head For Change is committed to protecting the players and protecting the game, and we believe the FA will be interested in the results we discover from the experiment.”
Professional Footballers’ Association bosses Maheta Molango and John Mousinho quickly followed Thompson’s lead, via a link with the Jeff Astle Foundation.
The PFA chief executive Molango and chairman Mousinho have also pledged to donate their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation UK.
Oxford United captain Mousinho said: “Brain donation is an intensely personal decision for former players and their families. However, I have been inspired by the team at the Concussion Legacy Foundation and The Jeff Astle Foundation, and I have decided to commit my brain to future research in the hope that it can help play a part in protecting future generations.”
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