So much has altered since England’s last game at Twickenham that the Rugby World Cup almost feels like a mirage. Can it really be just 21 weeks ago that the hosts stumbled prematurely from their own tournament? To the coaches caught in the onrushing headlights it doubtless still feels like yesterday. In the case of Eddie Jones, for whom the accident never happened, a return to HQ is simply about assessing the true extent of his side’s recovery.
As Jones is fully aware, it will be a step up from beating a Scotland team who performed poorly at Murrayfield and a battered Italian side who ran out of puff. No one, consequently, really knows whether England are: a) genuine title favourites; b) getting ahead of themselves yet again; or c) better equipped to thrive against top opposition than the squad Jones inherited from Stuart Lancaster.
The arrival of Ireland, therefore, is significant: not so much a fresh start as an opportunity to renew traditional vows. The Irish, injuries or not, are seeking to recapture the spark that brought successive Six Nations crowns. England, sick of bridesmaids’ bouquets, want to restore their supporters’ faith and their home ground’s fortress-style reputation. Win again and get their own back on Wales on 12 March and, suddenly, the Jones boys will be 80 Parisian minutes from a grand slam.
Whether this ends up being a vintage Six Nations remains uncertain but their Australian leader will not be remotely bothered about style. If there is one main difference between autumnal England and their Six Nations doppelgangers it is mindset. Getting the job done, by the most readily available means, is Jones’s mantra; those fixated by the peripheral stuff can gaze at their navels in their own spare time.
As long as the encouraging results keep flowing few in England will complain about the head coach’s relentless work ethic and occasionally waspish views, even if the latter can be less than charmingly gallant.
Raising the subject of Jonathan Sexton’s state of readiness this week was legitimate enough – at this level it is not the job of opposition coaches to slather outstanding rival fly‑halves in Kerrygold – but to suggest publicly that the player’s parents must be worried about his wellbeing was a low blow. Those wondering how much was a calculated attempt to create friction will be interested in this character appraisal of Jones by England’s captain, Dylan Hartley. “One day he’ll come in and ask me how my kids are, then 10 seconds later he’ll tell me I trained shit. The next day he’ll come in and say: ‘How’s the missus,’ and then say: ‘You trained well today.’ He’s pretty straight up and down. What you see is what you get with him. It’s not an act he’s putting on. That’s him.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Both would appear to reside within the same tough antipodean skin. If some members of the media are unsure how to react to being called out for asking “ridiculous” questions, imagine how the younger players are feeling. What Jones has unquestionably fostered, though, is a sense of self-determination. If players show improvement in specifically nominated areas – as opposed to simply working hard – they will be promoted. Those who meander along can expect to be summarily chopped. Owen Farrell, for instance, already looks and sounds a more outwardly confident man only a few weeks into the Jones regime. Maybe this maturation process would have happened naturally under Lancaster and his father Andy, or perhaps a blast of fresh southern hemisphere air has been the catalyst.
A lively reaction is assuredly what England will be seeking this weekend. Trying to obliterate the Irish scrum is all very well but the return of Mike Ross and Cian Healy to the Irish 23 makes that less likely. Aerially, too, the visitors are particularly adept, either through the 6ft 11in Devin Toner in the lineout or the high-rising Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw in open field. Add in Conor Murray’s kicking game and England will need to make inroads around the breakdown and in midfield to guarantee repeating their 21-13 World Cup warm-up win against the same opponents at the same venue less than six months ago.
All of which helps to explain why Jones, unprompted, raised the subject of Sexton on Thursday. At his best there is no finer out-half in Europe; without him, Ireland would not have enjoyed some of the high points they have done. But if Ireland win some decent ball, Sexton has enough vigorous ball‑carriers around him to turn the tables and discover if there is some mileage to be had down George Ford’s channel. Ireland’s talisman usually kicks his goals, too, and now has extra incentive to prove that his bruising French experience has had scant effect. It would be no surprise if things become feisty – which is possibly what Jones was trying to engineer all along.
English supporters, though, will be looking for more positive indicators: that Anthony Watson and Mike Brown are back to their best, that Ford can play the matador with suitable composure and that the 21-year-old Maro Itoje, on his first Test start, is as potentially good as many within the game believe. The injured Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, not to mention Chris Robshaw, will be looking on with slight anxiety; if the athletic Itoje leaves some experienced Irish operators in his wake he is going to be mighty hard to drop.
With Dave Ewers making a comeback for Exeter against Bath , the onus is also on Robshaw, James Haskell and Billy Vunipola to dominate the contrasting Irish back row of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and the uncapped Josh van der Flier. Unfortunately for salivating headline writers the latter’s surname is pronounced “Fleer” but the young flanker’s Dutch heritage belies a childhood spent in Wicklow. Ironically, he is the only member of the visitors’ back row to have actually been born in Ireland.
Stand and deliver, in other words, has to be England’s objective. Ireland have scored three tries in their past five Tests against the English, winning just once, and will need to display more cutting edge than they have yet managed to massage those statistics. Their hosts are fit, have still to concede a championship try, possess a strong bench now incorporating the pacy and talented Elliot Daly and feel they have absorbed their bitter lessons of six months ago. Win and there will be further substance to the Jones makeover. Lose and, as far as many English fans are concerned, precious little will have changed save the head coach’s nationality.