England head to Llanelli for their last Autumn Nations Cup group match on a six-game winning run, coming off one of their great defensive showings and with a battle-hardened side – their most capped for a Test match ever.
And they are up against a Wales team that only broke a six-match losing streak with victory over Georgia last week, and a coach, Wayne Pivac, who is “under pressure” (Eddie Jones’s words) and who admits he is looking to the future with his selections, which have been ravaged by injury.
Pivac said he had selected “the last men standing” in certain positions, and acknowledged that he would not be as experimental had this been a Six Nations fixture.
So the form guide and team sheets all point towards the visitors.
But England coach Jones is not having that. He has spent the week talking up Wales, the game’s venue (“the heart and soul of Welsh Rugby”) and Pivac. He knows it was only last year that Wales were Grand Slam champions and World Cup semi-finalists, and that they remain dangerous.
In the same breath, he’s talked his own side down too, wary of what happens when some hype surrounds them. He learnt that the hard way in the World Cup Final last year.
“We were on it for maybe 60 minutes of the Ireland game but not for 80 minutes,” he said of the 18-7 win last Saturday, widely seen as one of their great defensive showings.
“We have never not got them [problems]. It is like going from the semi-final of the World Cup where everyone is saying you’re fantastic but you’re not fantastic as we found out in the World Cup Final.
“We are taking that approach for this game. We know we are not fantastic. We know we have to improve.”
The development of Jones’s side is fascinating. He said immediately after the World Cup Final defeat that a new team would be built.
Twelve of the starters from that game start on Saturday, and all 15 were a member of the squad. Wales might have the most capped player ever, Alun Wyn Jones, but this is England’s most capped XV ever, with 807. That is an average of 54. Nine of them have more than 50 caps, and two more are in the forties. Sam Underhill has the fewest caps, with 20. Five Welshmen are in single figures.
That is not to say England are old. Ben Youngs, at 31, is the oldest, and only two others are in their twenties. The oldest player on the bench is 28. That bench is where the evolution is on show, with players such as Will Stuart, Jack Willis and Ben Earl all making their mark this autumn. For his first World Cup in charge, Jones was completely recalibrating England. This time he is fine-tuning.
And Jones is not interested, just yet, in the idea of England expanding their attacking game. He wants a powerful forward game, a mastery of the fundamentals of the breakdown, maul and set piece. Maro Itoje is the central figure and work-rate is the watchword.
As we rumble closer to the World Cup in 2023, a more expansive game will be on show. Jones does not want to show his hand too early and does not care a jot who might want to see scything backs move.
Still, with George Ford back in the midfield, England have a slick backline making scope for a bit more freedom. They lack a classical power runner, but Jones rejected the term playmaker, and the idea he had picked three of them. There are no shrinking violets or defensive liabilities round here.
“Playmakers play in dinner suits,” he said. “They are not playmakers. None of Ford, Farrell, Slade play in dinner suits.”
The fancy stuff can wait – Jones just wants to keep winning.
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