The Guinness Six Nations championship, to use its full title, badly needs an uplifting, glass-full type of weekend. To date the weather has been the primary winner and, aside from Italy’s games, try bonus points have materialised about as often as Eddie Jones wears a cassock. Even the tournament’s true believers could do with a little nourishment of the soul.
With Jones also in sour mood in many of his midweek press briefings, there is even more reason to hope Ireland’s visit to Twickenham proves a timely antidote. England, in particular, could do with delivering a knockout blow to perceptions their progress is stalling. The team who looked so irresistibly strong against New Zealand in a World Cup semi-final three months ago have not rediscovered their mojo or given much credence to Jones’s pre-tournament ambition to create the greatest team the world has seen.
For that reason there has been an edgy atmosphere in Bagshot this week, albeit partially eased by a slick training session on Thursday that Jones reckoned was as good as any since his team returned from Japan. “It was by far the most intense session we’ve done,” the coach said. “We’re getting back to our World Cup level whereas at the start of the Six Nations we were 20% below that.”
In almost the same breath Jones accepted there is more tension in the air than normal. Lose two of their first three Six Nations games and the World Cup will recede even further into the distance, with a load of accompanying conjecture about whether Jones has taken this team as far as he can. The alternative scenario is far rosier: a rousing victory on Sunday followed by wins over Wales at home and Italy away would restore some public faith and potentially nick the title away from both Ireland and France.
A pivotal fixture in every sense, therefore, and Jones knows it. “It’s a big game, isn’t it? No one can detract from that fact. You guys have been edgy this week because you’re sensing it’s a big game. The players sense that … they know how important the game is.” In Jones’s mind the sensation is like being on a rollercoaster as it starts to stir: “You’re sitting at the top, you’re excited but also anxious, a bit uncomfortable, you’re not quite sure.”
If this all sounds surprisingly downbeat considering how recently England took apart the All Blacks in Yokohama, it just underlines how quickly the ferris wheel turns in international rugby.
The task of building the side back up from their disappointing final defeat by South Africa was never going to be straightforward but, equally, no one expected England to look as befuddled as they were in Paris.
It certainly feels like a while since Ireland were being beaten 57-15 at Twickenham in late August, leaking eight tries in the process. If extra pre-World Cup conditioning was among the reasons for Ireland’s lethargy that day, what about last February when England ran in another four tries in Dublin to win 32-20 in the opening round of last season’s championship?
Now it is the visitors who have a free shot, with Andy Farrell’s coaching tenure still in its infancy. Ireland are unbeaten after two home games and, relatively speaking, have done a better job of putting a disappointing World Cup outcome behind them.
Someone will be left flat on the canvas on Sunday and, throughout his long career, that individual has seldom been Farrell Sr. It is unlikely to be pretty but Wilder-Fury is not the only heavy-duty collision around.
How much more secure England would feel if they had even one of the heavyweight Vunipolas to propel them over the advantage line. Manu Tuilagi is back at outside-centre but yet another rearguard reshuffle has Jonathan Joseph redeployed on the wing, a selection that may interest Ireland’s tactical kickers. Johnny Sexton is too good a player not to challenge the back three at some stage and Andrew Conway has developed into a poacher par excellence. Ireland won 24-15 at Twickenham on their last Six Nations visit two years ago and will secure a triple crown if they can repeat the trick.
In that event, the fallout could be significant. Jones’ increasingly fractious sparring sessions – once upon a time they were called press conferences – with the media have helped no one and caused people to wonder whether, deep down, Jones’s heart is fully in his role. At times you could be forgiven for thinking he is trying to push the RFU into a position where it loses patience sooner rather than later. Veteran Jones watchers know better than to expect him to hang around anywhere where he feels undervalued; blaming it all on the media is just another handy bonus.
Whatever happens there is little likelihood of a set of Twickenham gates being named after him à la Warren Gatland in Cardiff, although the Eddie Jones media suite has a certain ring to it. It is a shame in a lot of ways: Jones undoubtedly provided the short, sharp shock England needed at the time following the 2015 World Cup and few possess his coaching acumen. That said, he also retains a gift for rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way.
How ironic it would be if Farrell, who lost his job following England’s pool exit at that tournament, were to be the one who pushed the former Wallaby coach closer to the revolving door.
There is still scope for a happier ending: Owen Farrell kicking the winning goal to deny his dad a special result would have particular resonance given the captain has not, by his standards, had a brilliant tournament so far.
It promises to be tight at the very least, with Jones’s decision to include five specialist locks in the 23 supplying a clue to the muscular scrap he is anticipating.
Will it be enough to suffocate Ireland at source? England, either way, will be hoping to avoid the fate suffered by the unmanned “ghost ship” that recently ran aground on rocks near Cork. The Twickenham swell is intensifying and, if they get it wrong, there will be no salvaging England’s title hopes.