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24 Mar 2023, Edition - 2810, Friday

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Why the Jones and Gatland rivalry will fuel passion for Cardiff showdown

The Guardian


Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland are going to have some fun next week. So far we’ve heard them both desperately vying to be the underdog – it’s the only time coaches ever compliment each other – but when we get into Test week we’ll see a few grenades launched from each side of the border.

Personally, I love it. It’s two coaches who have huge respect for each other casually flirting in public. It’s hollow – because what they are saying publicly and what they are saying privately are two completely different things – but it’s great entertainment. We don’t have to encourage it, just sit back and enjoy it. Too often in sport coaches and players do not tell us what they think so Eddie and Warren should be applauded.

It’s the beauty of rugby. I make a comparison to with football and if you look at all the rivalries between the so-called super coaches over the years, most of them have felt really quite sour. The only rivalry I remember that was different was José Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson – plenty of chat in the buildup but then an expensive bottle of red wine enjoyed afterwards. Eddie and Warren share a similar respect.

They share a huge amount of experience and success, and they respect each other for that. Warren has won grand slams with Wales, he’s their longest-serving head coach and Eddie has done fantastically well to transform England after the fallout from the 2015 World Cup. Equally there is a huge amount of tribalism when Wales play England, they are both outspoken coaches and that fuels the passion for this fixture. It can also be almost as entertaining as the match itself. It’s like any good heavyweight fight.

I said last week that it looked like all roads were leading to Cardiff and that’s where we find ourselves. If you’re picking a winner on form there is only one team in this Six Nations – England have maximum points and have only conceded three tries. But if you were picking a team on emotion you would lean towards Wales in Cardiff, not least because it is Warren’s last Six Nations.

I found it interesting to listen to Joe Schmidt’s comments after Ireland’s loss to defeat by England. It was along the lines of if you poke the bear enough times it will bite back at some point. That was England’s recent history against Ireland coming to fruition – they went to Dublin for revenge and Wales will be in a similar position this week. You think back to last year and the TMO decision to deny them a try, and the fact that they conceded only two penalties all match – when has an away team ever conceded just two penalties and not ended up winning the game? On top of that, they were almost there two years ago in Cardiff until Elliot Daly’s late try squeezed England home.

All of that will be rehashed in the coming week – the fact that there are two weeks to build up to the match is something special about the Six Nations – but the thing that really pleases me about the England camp at the moment is how they have realised the mistakes they made last year and learned from them. It can often be all we ever hear – “taking the learnings” – but I really think England have done that if you look at what they were doing this time 12 months ago.

In the buildup to the Scotland match they were training against Georgia. You have this tier-two nation rocking up and relishing the opportunity to train against some of the best players in the world. Take nothing away from Scotland – on they day the they deserved the win without doubt – but speaking to some of the England players, they were shattered going into that match. England seem to have learned from that and have treated this first fallow week as a chance for the players to have an MOT, to top up a bit of fitness if that’s what is required, to nurse a few knocks and get some game-time into a few of the players, such as Dan Robson and Dan Cole.

It makes obvious sense because those are the kind of players desperate to cement their place in the England squad with the World Cup on the horizon. Last year Eddie said he knew about 90% of his squad for Japan. That strikes me as precisely where you want to be less than 12 months before the World Cup, but there is clearly wriggle room.

Someone like Mark Wilson has not so much wriggled into the squad as broken down the door. That kind of added competition only feeds one person – and that’s Eddie. If you’re not in this winning side at the moment you’ve got to be sweating for your position. You don’t want to be a spectator for success when there are so few matches left. Some of the guys not selected through injury or form are watching this team get better and better, and the confidence is going through the roof. You’ll be happy but there will be some envy.

I remember speaking to Chris Ashton who was saying: “I just wanted to be in the wider training squad”. He felt that if he could just get into that squad he backed himself when he got there. Everyone will be thinking the same thing and you have seven or eight players on the outside at the moment. Take Chris Robshaw, he’s only played a couple of matches since his injury and others have usurped him in the squad – and now he’s fighting for his World Cup place.

He won’t whinge, he will get his head down and; he is a fighter and that is exactly what Eddie wants.

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