As all rugby fans will have noted, England are on a great run. There’s a new-found optimism in the camp and, since his appointment in the aftermath of last year’s World Cup debacle, Eddie Jones has delivered a Six Nations Grand Slam and whitewashed the Aussies in their own back yard.
England returned to action over the weekend, extending Jones’ 100% record with an impressive 37-21 victory over the Springboks at HQ, and as ever Neil was the keenest of observers.
Of course, he’s as chuffed as the rest of us at the side’s progress over the past year but appreciates that a great deal hard work lies ahead, if England are to realise their long-term aspirations.
Speaking exclusively, Neil highlighted the South African shortcomings he feels contributed to an emphatic English win.
“Looking back at the game, I ask myself whether England were great or just good. I think it has to be the latter, and Eddie Jones was the first to say so, but they definitely have the potential to become a great team. The truth of it, though, was that South Africa made the English performance look better than it actually was. The Springboks were poor full stop. Their defence was shambolic and they look like they’re in some kind of embarrassing freefall. They weren’t joined up at all and had zero counter-attacking threat, which allowed England to easily dominate territory as well as possession.
A couple of stand-out moments said it all for me. Ben Youngs’ two bits of trickery have rightly been highlighted and he made their No.7 look a fool on both occasions but you’ve got to feel for the bloke. For sure, you have to make your tackles and maybe he should have just have smashed Youngs but, if he’d had any help in the middle, he wouldn’t have been doing the job of two men. They were wide open and got punished. In that regard, England were ruthless.”
England line up against the Fijians at Twickenham this Saturday, in a game Neil sees as following another pattern entirely.
“I think Fiji will be a different proposition altogether for Eddie’s men on Saturday. They’re not as talented, at least in terms of 15-a-side rugby, as the Springboks but they’ll be more connected with one another, more disciplined and provide a much tougher test. Ultimately, the Fijians will be more of a team and that’s vital at this level. Eddie Jones understands the importance of the team ethic and the collective endeavour it entails and I think he’s got that across to the guys very well in the relatively short time he’s been at the helm.”
Neil has nothing but praise for the new approach brought by Jones and his staff.
“What an impact he’s made on England! If you compare where we were after the World Cup with how things look now, it’s an incredible transformation. The biggest thing for me is the change he’s brought about to the squad’s mindset. Eddie’s been very clever with the way he’s spoken after each victory. He’s been humble and stressed that we’re not yet good enough and that therefore we must continue to improve. You need that attitude every day to ensure you do all you can to fulfil your potential – and England have a lot of it.
Players are chomping at the bit and there’s tremendous competition for places, thanks to Jones and his coaching team. After the Grand Slam he got the tone spot on and, without mentioning any names, said some players hadn’t performed quite to his expected standard. That’s the clever bit, planting the seed of a question in every player’s mind – ‘does he mean me?’ The players respond by training harder, being more diligent and redoubling their efforts because they see there’s something special happening and there’s no way any of them want to lose their shirt.
Top level rugby can be unforgiving, of course, and tough decisions are part and parcel of a coach’s role.
“Jones hasn’t been afraid to drop people or to try out alternatives, so everybody’s on their toes. He brought Tom Wood back in from the cold but had no qualms about leaving him out again. It sounds like he’s going use Alex Goode at fullback against Fiji and, although you’d expect Mike Brown to hold on to the 15 shirt, it gives Eddie a chance to assess his options. Likewise bringing in the likes of Ewells for Attwood and replacing Yarde with Rokoduguni – these guys have incentives.
In the case of Rokoduguni and indeed with Nathan Hughes, both were born in Fiji and it could be the perfect game for them. By giving these guys the opportunity to show what they can do, he’s saying to everyone that the door is always open but, equally, they all know the realities of selection can be brutally harsh.”
As Neil knows from his time under the tutelage of Sir Clive Woodward, England can profit from the impetus added by the Australian.
“Jones has created great momentum. If you include the dead-rubber Uruguay game at the back end of the World Cup, they’ve now won 11 on the bounce. The team I was privileged to play in set an English record of 14 consecutive wins, so, if they can go through the three remaining Autumn Internationals, they’ll equal that feat. The Australians will be out to avenge what happened in the summer but, with the form England are in, I’m confident they can overcome the threat and get to that magic 14.”
Neil suspects Jones has a tacit ambition, a party perhaps only Ireland can poop.
“When the Irish beat New Zealand in Chicago the other day, they ended a world record 18 game All Black winning streak. Eddie Jones, if he can get through these next three matches, will never say out loud he’s eyeing that up as a milestone, but you can guarantee he is in his own head. His target is to establish England as the best team on the planet, and a run like that is precisely the kind of achievement you need to nail to be considered as such. Not wishing to get ahead of ourselves, but 14 plus five Six Nations matches is a very achievable 19 for this group. Of course, the Irish might have something to say about that in the 19th game and what could well be the championship decider on Paddy’s Day.
Barring an unlikely meltdown, I seriously think that, of all the opposition lined up in front of England over the next year or so, and certainly of the Northern Hemisphere teams, Ireland are the only ones to pose a credible threat. The way they dealt with the All Blacks was awesome and they deserve all the plaudits they’re currently getting.”
Like everyone connected with the game, Neil was deeply saddened by the news of Munster coach Anthony Foley’s untimely passing.
“I have to say that what they did to commemorate Anthony in Chicago, forming the number eight out there on the pitch, is one of, if not, the greatest things I’ve ever seen on or off the field. I think it gave the team a real lift going into the game and the intent they showed from the off carried on and helped the Irish through to a fantastic result. The performance was a fitting tribute to a fierce competitor.”
Irish form notwithstanding, though, the future looks bright for an English team on the ascent.
“If England can maintain the work ethic and Eddie Jones can continue his team’s improvement through the winter and into the spring, I expect them to achieve great things. The Lions tour next summer is perfectly timed on that score. With maybe eight or nine guys off in New Zealand, there will be chances for even more players to stake their claim and add to the strength in depth we already have.”