England’s players giggled as they ran through puddles for Friday’s eve-of-semi-final training run in a torrential rainstorm at the Yokohama International Stadium, and still it was difficult to equate this easy-going attitude with the talk of life-changing events and rewriting history coming from the mouth of their head coach over the last few weeks.
By guiding England to the last four of this World Cup, Eddie Jones has reportedly gained the support of the Rugby Football Union to stay in post for the remaining two years of his contract and possibly longer – but the super-sharp Australian wants more than just a pat on a losing coach’s back if today’s opponents, the reigning champions New Zealand, march on.
“When you’ve been involved in rugby the country you want to knock off is New Zealand, because they’ve been the best,” said Jones, who has coached Australia, South Africa and Japan in varying roles at previous World Cups. “The reason you’re involved in this game is you want to be the best.”
Owen Farrell and company no doubt feel the same, and Jones, below, has predicted fame and fortune for them if they can go on to win the tournament against South Africa or Wales next Saturday. It would finally draw the line under 2003, and Johnno, Jonny, Dallaglio and Co., and just reaching the final would match England’s efforts under Will Carling’s captaincy in 1991, and Phil Vickery’s in 2007. They have already bettered the miserable performances of more recent memory: the quarter-final collapse to France in 2011 and the pool-stage exit in 2015 – although a kinder draw this time has helped.
England have not faced New Zealand in a World Cup since three losses out of three in the 1990s days of baggy jerseys and Jonah Lomu on the rampage. Here, Farrell’s team ought to be feeling very fresh, after their final pool match with France was cancelled a fortnight ago and they romped past Australia in last weekend’s quarter-finals. Their power-packed carriers and tacklers – Courtney Lawes, Manu Tuilagi, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinckler, Sam Underhill, Tom Curry – must be physically pumped and primed to beat the All Blacks with 80 minutes’ worth of attacking their primary sources of possession. The squad insist any cliques or grievances were banished in heart-to-hearts during the summer. They claim to be unfazed by any “aura” of the All Blacks, who have not lost a World Cup match since 2007.
In the utterly engrossing tactical battle in store, Jones says he selected his “finishing team first”, in another indication of his desire to transcend the everyday. From the start, though, England have George Ford and Farrell as dual kickers, while New Zealand’s potentially overbearing lineout presence includes Scott Barrett – normally a lock and here starting a Test at blindside flanker for the first time – as an extra jumper. England may aim to keep the ball in play but if they feed New Zealand’s brilliant back three too often, the kick-chase and team shape must be spot on.
Farrell versus Anton “Albie” Lienert-Brown could be the key head-to-head. Inside centre versus second five-eighth; Farrell’s teeth-bared warrior spirit against Lienert-Brown’s playmaking genius. For New Zealand to panic about keeping the ball in hand there must be faultless discipline and the maintenance of England’s so-far excellent tackle technique: right height and perfectly timed. Today is not the time to lose it, in any sense of the phrase. One red card could mean curtains.
In defence, at full-back, Elliot Daly had a nightmare against Australia, and the scrum-half Ben Youngs warned against any repeat of England’s vulnerability on the edges. In attack, Manu Tuilagi needs to make the gainline a moveable feast for England – moving over it, and often, that is.
There is an argument it would be good for the game if the World Cup changed hands today. Whatever the case New Zealand have beaten England a staggering 15 times in the last 16 meetings. Both teams have a mixture of veterans and kids. You sense the best way for Jones’s self-styled “Rising Sons” to rise to this occasion will be to keep their focus as narrow as possible: hit everything in black that moves, and pick off every point that comes their way. Then leave it to the breakfast-time audience back home to judge and celebrate the scale of the achievement.