Steered by the brash and inimitable Eddie Jones, it has been quite the ride on England’s chariot during this wild Rugby World Cup cycle. All that’s ever mattered, though, is that it parked up in Japan in prime shape for England’s tilt at winning the Webb Ellis Trophy for a second time. And that certainly looks to be the case.
England’s final hit-out of any consequence ahead of the first World Cup on Asian soil resulted in a 57-15 thrashing of Ireland at Twickenham last month. The way England overpowered the Irish in virtually every aspect revived memories of the 17-match winning run under Jones from February 2016 to March 2017, which took in two Six Nations titles (including one Grand Slam) and a rise to No 2 in the world rankings behind the All Blacks.
England fans sang their rugby anthem Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with gusto. All the talk then was of a two-way duel between England and New Zealand at the World Cup. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
England’s slump was fairly dramatic, a fifth-place finish in the 2018 Six Nations – their worst in 30 years – being followed by a lost Test series in South Africa. Selection was muddled, key injuries took hold, and it seemed like a storm was brewing around Jones.
He has dealt with it all, and will lead England into the World Cup in bullish mood, while also keeping his players on their toes. “Are we moving in the right direction? Yes,” Jones said. “Are we ready to win the World Cup now? No.”
A back row of Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry, and a midfield three of George Ford and centres Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi provide the spine as England look to get over the humiliation of being the first host nation to fail to get out of the pool stage at a Rugby World Cup.
But, like four years ago when they were thrown in with Australia and Wales, it’s another tough group for the northern hemisphere’s only ever World Cup winners, including France and Argentina.
A plus for England is that the team starts the World Cup with matches against the weakest opponents in the pool in the form of Tonga and the United States, giving the players a chance to settle and Jones the option to rotate some players.
Then comes the moment of truth, when four years of planning are put to the test.
French performances have looked better in the three games since head coach Jacques Brunel’s anointed successor Fabien Galthié was appointed to the management group. Their opener with the Pumas will be a pool-defining clash.