With this Saturday’s Calcutta Cup match marking the 150th anniversary of rugby’s oldest international, the England coach was asked for his favourite memories of the fixture.
The little Aussie’s answer was insightful as he looked beyond his own involvement in the game, preferring instead to reference players who made an impression on him as a young player.
“During the period I was growing up, Scotland had a really good side,” he said. “They had a fantastic hooker, Colin Deans, who I always wanted to be - fast, aggressive. And I actually met him recently up at Northampton - he lives up there.
“And they had an outstanding back row - John Jeffrey, [Finlay] Calder - really tough. And they played that fast rucking game as opposed to England, who played historically more of a stand-up game. So you had this fast, aggressive team against a more stand-up team: it was a good contrast in the styles of rugby.”
Jones, speaking at the official launch of the Guinness Six Nations, chose to reference three players who all put their indelible mark on the Calcutta Cup, some more forcibly than others.
All three also belong to that elite band of Scots to have won the Grand Slam, with Deans a member of the all-conquering side captained by Jim Aitken in 1984.
Deans also has the rare distinction of being part of a Scotland side to have won at Twickenham and the 22-12 victory in 1983 remains the last time the Scots triumphed at English rugby’s HQ.
Form and history mean the hosts will be overwhelming favourites when the sides meet again in south-west London this weekend as England begin their defence of the Championship.
“It’s a fantastic game to start the Six Nations - 150th anniversary of the [first] game between Scotland and England, so it’s going to be a great celebration,” said Jones. “So we’re going to be up for it. It means a lot to both countries, so I’m sure it’s going to be a tough, possibly niggling affair.”
Memories of the 2019 Twickenham match between the sides will still send shivers down the spine of the England coach after he watched his side squander a 31-0 first-half lead. The match finished 38-38, with Scotland’s second-half comeback ensuring they retained the Calcutta Cup.
What happened at half-time in the away dressing room remains a matter of conjecture but what cannot be denied is the role Finn Russell had in the revival which saw Scotland leading 38-31 at the death before George Ford’s late, late try and conversion tied the match.
In the immediate aftermath, Russell suggested Scotland had ripped up coach Gregor Townsend’s gameplan and gone for broke. When the pair fell out last year, the stand-off’s comments became the subject of much retrospective analysis.
Happily for Scotland, the pair have been reconciled and Jones knows just what a threat Russell poses.
“He’s a fine attacking player, he’s in good form for Racing, and he’s probably got the best short attacking kicking game in the world, so we’re going to have to make sure to take time and space away from him,” Jones cautioned. “He will add something to the Scotland side.”
The Scots also think they can benefit from the lack of supporters. Jones isn’t so sure.
“The answer is I don’t know,” he said. “I could make something up. What I do know is that the players will be 100 per cent committed, and for England playing against Scotland, it will mean as much for the English players as it will for the Scottish players whether there’s 80,000 people there or not.
“It’s an important game. They see it as an important game, we see it as an important game, and it will be intense and it will be tough. Those people watching at home are going to enjoy the game.”
This is Jones’ sixth Six Nations campaign as England coach, and he can boast of three Championship titles and one Grand Slam. He has won three from five Calcutta Cups and cites the first and last as his most memorable. The first, at Murrayfield in 2016, saw the visitors win 15-9 in Jones’ first match in charge of England. Four years later, his side edged another close game in Edinburgh, with Ellis Genge’s late try proving the difference in appalling wind and rain.
“That first game - the team and I didn’t know each other that well,” recalled Jones. “I think we had 10 days together and we had to find a way to win that game. There was a beautiful pass for I think Jack Nowell to score in the right-hand corner for our victory.
“And so that was a good moment, and then I thought last year our win was outstanding. We played in very difficult conditions and won a tough game quite convincingly. They’re good, tough games of rugby.”
The memories aren’t always good ones. England lost at Murrayfield in 2018 and Jones was subjected to verbal abuse from three Scots at Manchester train station as he returned south. After initially asking him to pose for a picture, the atmosphere turned sour. Jones makes light of it now but it was a troubling incident.
“It’s a great game, England-Scotland, because it means so much to everyone,” Jones adds. “I remember a couple of years ago, coming back from a Scotland game and getting accosted by a few Scottish supporters, which was a bit of fun. Yeah, it’s a great game.”