ACCORDING to Eddie Jones, England’s World Cup debacle against Wales is now “irrelevant” and instead the side he has nurtured since stands on the verge of “greatness” as they prepare to take on their fierce rivals once more for Six Nations glory.
If results go in their favour this weekend, England – who host Wales at Twickenham this afternoon – could be crowned champions and stay on course for a first grand slam since 2003.
That would, at least, go some way to eroding the memory of their dismal World Cup exit last autumn but, of course, Warren Gatland’s side stand in their way.
Jones, the Australian who has overseen three successive wins since replacing Stuart Lancaster as England head coach, believes he has prepared his side sufficiently to reach the requisite heights.
“This is a fantastic and exciting opportunity for these players to be great now,” he said.
“Greatness is defined by being able to do it on the big stage and the great thing about Saturday is that it’s a big stage.
“It’s so exciting, so we want players to stand up. Big players stand up and the players who are going to make it stand up.”
Under Lancaster, Wales were too often England’s nemesis, defeating them in 2012 and 2013 to lift the Six Nations title and consign them to the first of four successive runners-up spots.
However, it was the shambolic late collapse against Wales in that pivotal World Cup group match at Twickenham last September that ended in a catastrophic 28-25 loss and led to England’s eventual exit, that many feel will have left lasting damage.
Jones, who has retained 13 players from that night’s 23 for today’s encounter, shrugged it off.
“It’s 100 per cent realistic to ignore what happened at the World Cup,” he maintained.
“We haven’t spoken about it once because it’s irrelevant to this group of players.
“This group of players trains differently and thinks differently about the game. We’ve all had games in the past where we’ve been scarred. I’ve been scarred by games in the past as a coach, but if you carry those you don’t stay involved in high-level sport because you carry baggage around.
“If we need that World Cup game to motivate us, then I’ve done a bad job during the week.
“We’re a different team. They (Wales) might be the same team, but we’re a different one.”
Indeed, England’s assistant coach Paul Gustard says the side “expects” to win against Wales, who are unbeaten after victories over Scotland and France but unable to secure a grand slam themselves following an opening round draw with holders Ireland.
“We want to win and as the defence coach I expect to win otherwise I haven’t prepared the team properly,” he said.
“We want to build something that has some longevity. We’re in the infancy of what we are trying to create in terms of a new England with new coaches and a new style of play. Over the course of time we will develop but our expectancy tomorrow is to win.”
Wales have made it known their intention to target George Ford, the England fly-half who, for all his attacking quality, has long been questioned defensively. Jamie Roberts, the venerable British Lions centre, intends on making his life a misery but Gustard maintains there is nothing in Wales’ pre-match rhetoric that duly concerns the hosts.
Asked if Roberts’s comments influenced his planning, he said: “It’s always in your thoughts but I don’t think I’d be the first defence coach to think about protecting a 10 – a playmaker.
“As a club coach with (Saracens) Owen Farrell, I’d be doing exactly the same thing. George has had this all his career, people trying to run down on top of him.
“Because he is such a talented player ball in hand that overshadows potentially how good he is in defence; his bravery to get off the line is unquestionable. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how good a defender he is. He’s not been found out so far. I’m pretty sure it won’t happen this weekend.”
The plan will be, rather, that England’s own midfield destructor Manu Tuilagi inflicts the damage on the visitors instead.
After almost two years away from the international scene following a severe groin injury, the bullocking Leicester Tigers centre is expected to come off the bench at some point.
Jones will hope he can then wreak chaos in Wales’ tiring defence and allow his side to manoeuvre themselves closer to that aforementioned “greatness.”
That said, does this Wales side, under the command of the astute Gatland, ever truly tire?
Farrell on England: Page 8