It’s the kind of transformation that is more associated with the make-believe world of Hollywood than real life, but England’s revival from World Cup flops to being on the brink of back-to-back Grand Slams and on the cusp of breaking a tier one world record for consecutive wins is truly exceptional an achievement.
Much credit must go to Eddie Jones and his coaching team, with the former Wallabies, Springboks and Japan coach bringing something that has been so sorely missing from the national set up since the glory days of 2003: coaching experience.
Jones has one of the most impressive CVs in the rugby world: guiding the ACT Brumbies to their first Super Rugby title; winning the Tri-Nations and reaching a World Cup final with Australia; joining South Africa’s backroom staff as they achieved a second World Cup title and bamboozling the same team with minnows Japan at the last tournament.
But Jones’ career has certainly not been a bed of roses; he lost his Wallabies job in 2005 after his side were defeated seven times in a row before he struggled to make an impact at Queensland Reds following his green and gold dismissal.
Yet that is precisely why Jones is so successful with this England team. He has been there and done that, he knows what it takes to win and what it feels like to get it badly wrong.
When one looks at the rest of the Six Nations coaches, they are all successful at club level – but with the exception of Wales’ Warren Gatland they are still relative novices in the test arena.
The Ireland job is Joe Schmidt’s first outside of domestic rugby. Vern Cotter’s time with Scotland will be his first taste of international coaching. Despite their numerous successes at club level, but Conor O’Shea and Guy Noves had never previously led test nations.
The pressures of preparing a team for 10 or 11 matches a year instead of 20 or 30 just cannot be compared, and the media scrutiny that comes with that pressure cooker are the non pareil in terms of any other sporting walk of life.
With Jones as its figurehead, England are confident but not overconfident and the man is a master at handling the press.
Jones’ assistants Paul Gustard, Steve Borthwick, Neal Hatley and Rory Teague have been successful at age grade or club level, but all of them are still relatively new to international rugby. They feed off Jones’ knowledge and it is making them better as coaches, bringing through a new line of talented and experienced potential replacements for Jones when he eventually walks away from the job.
Given the lack of genuine homegrown options to take on the job previously – hence why Ian Ritchie and the RFU went for an outsider in Eddie Jones back in 2015 – this is essential succession planning, but the combination of a gnarled old head and an enthusiastic team of individuals striving to be the best works for the men in white.
But the Aussie cannot take all the credit. He inherited a young and talented squad from Stuart Lancaster, with Jones having only brought in 12 new caps since he took over and only three of those really establishing themselves in the team (in Maro Itoje, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly).
This team features players like George Ford – who turned just 24 the other day and already has 34 caps under his belt, or Owen Farrell at 25 with 52. Only 51 players in the history of the sport have played for England under the age of 21; 14 of those players (Joe Marler, Ben Youngs, Danny Care, Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje, Jonathan Joseph, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Mike Brown, Farrell and Ford) are in the current side.
England has only ever had one 100 cap player in Jason Leonard, but some of these players could go on to hit that figure and more.
Moreover, those dire experiences that this squad went through in 2015 and even as far back as the disastrous 30 – 3 thrashing in Cardiff in 2013 have shaped this team. None of them wants to feel they way they did back in September and October of that World Cup year.
Then you look at the likes of Itoje, a player of only 22 and just 11 caps but making decisions that you expect to see from a veteran of the game.
The quality of coaching at English academies is improving and the work between the Premiership clubs and the RFU is yielding the results needed to make the men in white a genuine force to be reckoned with once more. Another U20 Six Nations Championship win on Friday evening, following on from a third World Championship win last year, is testament to this.
Jones has brought a tactical nous and his worldly experiences with him to a young but world-weary team desperate to prove itself. On Saturday evening they have a chance to show that potential has genuinely be fulfilled – it’s a brilliant mix of old heads and young shoulders.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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