“Mate, until that whistle blows, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Eddie Jones once told his autobiography writer Donald McRae.
We may have believed, we may have had an inkling, but before that whistle went on Saturday, even the most blinkered England rugby fans didn’t know what was about to happen. A 19-7 victory over reigning World Cup champions New Zealand.
This was one of the most complete performances by an England rugby side; 2003’s winning coach Sir Clive Woodward has gone as far to rank it as the greatest ever England game, eclipsing any of his own squad’s efforts.
It was ferocious in every aspect. The England football team may have three lions on their shirt, but on Saturday the country’s rugby team had 15 on the pitch; a pride hunting All Black players like bewildered wildebeest.
It was attacking incision matched with a supreme defensive performance, confirming that the game against Australia was no one-off or purely down to a poor Wallaby side. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill (forming his own highlight reel of monster hits) were once again to the fore, smashing anything that moved, while Maro Itoje put in a shift that will go down in English folklore – the kind to tell your grandkids about.
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England pressured the Kiwis in all the right areas. Led by the recalled George Ford at flyhalf, they kicked behind New Zealand into space, forcing their back three to turn, giving the chasers opportunity to run them down before a counter attack could be launched.
The All Blacks and their much-vaunted attack had nowhere to turn. They conceded a risible 20 turnovers as English players jackalled, disrupted mauls, counter rucked, ripped out the tackle or pressured them into throwing speculative offloads.
Central to this gameplan is the all-court footballing skills of England’s tight five. Never mind the twin playmakers in Ford and Owen Farrell, Kyle Sinckler was operating like a third flyhalf at tighthead; all cute offloads and passing on the gain-line. Sure, he and Tom Curry got the timing wrong on the first disallowed try but the wrap-around was more reminiscent of Johnny Sexton than English tightheads of days past.
Sinckler, Jamie George and Mako Vunipola made 12 passes and 28 carries between them. In comparison, New Zealand – long the sole preserve of forwards comfortable with the ball – and their front row made one pass and seven carries. England may have edged the possession 56% to 44%, but those are stark differentials.
Before the game, my friends and I were speculating on who we’d pick from a combined 2003 and 2019 side. Understandably, 2003 dominated, but we were all unanimous we’d pick the complete 2019 front row. Maybe that says something about how the role of props and hookers has evolved, or maybe it shows we have a golden generation of front row talent.
Their influence can even be seen on the old guard such as Dan Cole. Since being dropped from the squad, Cole has upped his game, drawing from the likes of Sinckler and Vunipola to prove an old dog can learn new tricks. It was brilliant to see him provide impetus from the bench, tackling hard and carrying the ball with relish.
Few, if any, beyond Jones saw this coming. Four years’ ago, England were imploding on home territory, like a grisly car crash you can’t look away from even if you want to. Since then, Jones has dragged them from the wreckage and put them through relentless rehab.
There is context to that opening quote, with Jones continuing: “That’s why preparation is everything. If you get it right, the chances of your team being successful are high. But in a team of human beings nothing is guaranteed.”
So, although once the players take to the pitch you cannot script what comes next, you can work day and night to ensure their improv is up to scratch.
Jones knew, once the World Cup draw happened, we would likely be playing Australia in the quarter finals and New Zealand in the semis. He has been preparing for those moments, blooding talent, evolving a gameplan bit by bit.
It hasn’t been a clear run, and he has had to adapt on the fly when it became clear key players were not the ones Jones needed or that their bodies would not make it to Japan. Tom Curry and Sam Underhill took to the field as a pair for the first time this year. Jones was able to field the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi in the same team together for the first time in the Six Nations against Ireland. Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz (who has sadly now been ruled out the final) made the squad at the last minute. Jones is flip-flopping between Ford at 10 and Henry Slade at 13, with Farrell shifting accordingly, depending on the opposition.
In fact, this is arguably not a settled side – yet they play with a fluency and energy that belies their minimal international experience as a team. Jones has prepared them piece by piece, like a jigsaw with the overall picture only becoming clear as he slots them all into place at the last minute.
Next Saturday they play in a world cup final against the Springboks, a first for England since 2007 when they were outplayed the same opposition. That journey was against the run of play, making the final through sheer petulance as much as ability.
This squad is a different vintage, however. The win over New Zealand has marked them as an all-time great English team – the biggest danger is that win feeling like their final and failing to scale the same heights again.
So it was reassuring to see the muted celebrations following the semi-final win. Acknowledge the victory, thank the fans and then move on. England know it will count for little if they fall short in the end.
But there is still the sense this team is still not peaking. For all the plaudits, they were not perfect. They had two tries disallowed (one fairly, one… less so) and butchered at least two other opportunities. Had he been fully fit, you would have backed Jonny May to burn past Scott Barrett into the corner nine times out of 10. Similarly, one brain-fade over-throw gifted New Zealand their score.
But this gives England something to work on. They will walk into the final favourites but when that whistle goes no one knows what will happen. Thankfully, in Eddie Jones, they have a coach who has been preparing them for this moment for four years.
By Henry Ker