Like many outsiders, coach Eddie Jones has been puzzled by England’s underwhelming performances in the buildup to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Yes, they won the most recent RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam, but that came after the team hadn’t won the title since 2003.
Jones has learned that his team is not world-beaters. His challenge, he said at the World Cup announcement in August, is to get the English to play as if they were. This means more bravery. Jones does not shy away from shouting, and he doesn’t often accept simple answers. He wants his players to go out there and be emotional, to score tries.
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There is an inordinate amount of politeness in club rugby these days and by the looks of things, despite England’s mixed results, that isn’t likely to change. You look around, say what you think, roll your eyes and get on with it. But for Jones, who arrived in late 2015, the problems stem from a deeper one. How can England win the World Cup? It’s as simple as this: they cannot. They will fail.
Yet, for all that Jones needs to change — and England surely need to change — the way the team plays should not change. Simply put, England need more players like Joe Cokanasiga. Cokanasiga was breathtaking in the summer, and there could be many more like him. The reality is, England already have more players who could be World Cup stars than any other nation.
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The talented South Africa-born players who have been performing for England — Joe Cokanasiga and Zane Kirchner, for example — are hardly huge threats, of course. These are players with a skill set, not a power. All of this makes England’s favorite pastime an easy narrative: they are lazy, lacking aggression and can’t cope when given the burden of expectation.
Look at the World Cup itself. Along with every other team, England will have to do better than in 2016, which was their only event in this tournament. In the pool stage, they thrashed the United States, Namibia and Uruguay. Their only defeat came against Scotland, a result they have since avenged against their south of the border rivals.
England are a smart team. The European champions, meanwhile, travel to Japan on Tuesday and begin their tournament against the Tongans. The test, which will help test the Tongans, is that more than 13 of those in the squad are teenagers.
They are not robots. They can and will make mistakes, not least through unfamiliarity. That is what Jones will want, because that is what he requires. This is a team full of assets. As long as he trusts them, and England can make them lean on those assets, they will be dangerous. England cannot reach the final unless they bring out the best in one another. There is no room for complacency or pinching yourselves. England have more world-class players than any other nation, and that will count for much in Japan.