March 16, 2018
George Ford dropped and Owen Farrell to start at fly-half
Dylan Hartley returns to lead England at Twickenham
Eddie Jones has claimed he loves having a target on his back despite conceding that his side are in the midst of their most testing period since he took charge. A chastening defeat by France has led to his most radical team selection to date but England’s head coach is unfazed by the heightened criticism coming his way.
He again apologised for derogatory comments towards Ireland and Wales, made in a video that came to light at a time when he is seeking to avoid a third consecutive defeat as England’s head coach with the knives, if not out, being sharpened. He said he considered the matter of the video “dead” but added that he relishes the heat that comes as a byproduct of coaching England.
“I love it. This is what we get paid for as coaches,” Jones said. “It’s the best time in rugby, when you are under the pump and you have got to produce it.”
Accordingly, Jones has made 10 changes, omitting George Ford for only the second time and moving Owen Farrell to fly-half. Jones has recalled his captain, Dylan Hartley, but also dropped Dan Cole for the first time – bringing in Kyle Sinckler for his added dynamism – while Joe Launchbury has been relegated to the bench with George Kruis’s lineout nous preferred.
“[Sinckler] has worked really hard. He’s gone through some pretty tough periods since the Lions,” Jones said. “He’s been injured, his fitness was not where needs to be but he’s worked hard on scrummaging, worked hard on discipline and we believe he’ll give us what we need at start.”
With Chris Robshaw shifting to blindside flanker, Richard Wigglesworth starting at scrum-half, James Haskell returning to the No 7 jersey, Sam Simmonds coming in at No 8 and Ben Te’o paired with Jonathan Joseph in midfield, the message from Jones, despite the injury absences of his best ball-carriers in Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes, was clear – in fact, he reiterated it countless times on Thursday. “To beat any team you’ve got to get on the front foot,” he said. I’ve picked a side that I think can get on the front foot against Ireland.”
Launchbury struggled against France but his omission is a surprise considering his performance against Wales earlier in the competition, while the relegation of Ford is not, judging by how little he has been able to affect proceedings with England on the back foot in their previous two games.
“Selection always has to be a reflection of performance,” Jones said. “It always has to be because it is a merit‑based process. So if performance isn’t as good, selection has to change. [We have] good characters and the team’s up for the fight. That’s what I’ve sensed this week. No one’s dropped their bundles. Guys are disappointed their role in the team’s changed. And that’s natural. I’d be disappointed if they weren’t disappointed. [There has been a] good reaction.”
Wholesale changes will only go so far to achieving that reaction, however, but Jones again dismissed the idea that his players are showing signs of fatigue in a gruelling post-Lions season. “We had a session yesterday that showed we’re in peak physical condition.”
Instead, he believes the issue is mental. “When you lose a game of rugby what gets tested is not your ability to play rugby or your fitness, it is your ability to mentally come back from the game. That’s what is being tested at the moment. It is a fantastic test for us. It is the first time that we have been tested like this.”
Fixing his side’s issues at the breakdown against an Ireland side unchanged aside from the return of Iain Henderson would also undoubtedly help, as would addressing England’s discipline after 16 penalties were conceded against France. “We’ve been under pressure, particularly at the breakdown, which results in a number of penalties. Offside at the ruck, not releasing at the breakdown. If we find ways to relieve that pressure then you’ll see a better disciplined team.”
Jones also revealed he has been seeking counsel from all corners because “I am not the reservoir of wisdom” but while he would not admit it, even he would realise that his filmed comments will hardly help his side’s cause against Ireland, who are chasing the third grand slam in their history.
“I’m not exactly sure what [the comments] were,” the Ireland head coach, Joe Schmidt, said. “They are not directly relevant to us, to be honest. Those words don’t impact on how we play or how his team plays and that’s our focus.”