CAPTAIN Dylan Hartley knows England are caught in their rivals’ crosshairs after climbing out of the doldrums under head coach Eddie Jones.
Jones’s men have amassed 19 victories under the guidance of their Australian boss, tasting defeat only once when a Grand Slam was denied by Ireland in March.
The autumn series at Twickenham begins against Argentina today and Hartley accepts that having risen from the ruins of their failed 2015 World Cup, England can no longer claim to be a work in progress in their pursuit of glory at Japan 2019.
“Naturally just being England we’ve always had a target on us,” the Red Rose captain said.
“But now we’re not the surprise any more. We expect to give people a good, hard game and I think that now people know that. Maybe we are targeted and must be better now.
“We’ve had two great years as an evolving team, as a bit of an unknown team. But two years out from a World Cup we’ve got to be better.
“People are obviously aware now that we’re an improved team and we need to kick on and improve.”
England are chasing a ninth successive victory over Argentina knowing that it will be the final time they collide before meeting in a Pool C showdown at the World Cup.
Second place has been cemented in the global rankings, but Hartley insists they will not be content until they rise to the pinnacle of the sport.
“When we prepare for a game it’s all about that game, but at the right time we speak about the bigger picture, which is about being the best team in the world and winning a World Cup,” Hartley said.
“Our belief’s been growing, but now it’s there 100 per cent that we can be better, that we can get to No 1 and we win a World Cup.
“If you don’t have these kind of goals, these dreams, and you don’t talk about them, then you’ve got no chance of achieving them. You’ve got to talk about it.”
England completed a 2-0 series victory over Argentina in June, but Hartley is determined to show they have improved since – a task that will be made possible if Pumas talisman and hooker Agustin Creevy is brought to heel.
“We want to provide a better performance in a team that’s evolved since the summer,” Hartley said.
“Results were good in the summer, but there were things in the game that weren’t quite good enough. Set-piece for one. And we were on the wrong side of too many penalties. Obviously you’re playing Argentina, so what makes them tick? Set-piece. And who’s in the middle of that – Agustin Creevy.
“Creevy is the captain and he makes them tick. I want us to evolve as a team and pull away. I want us to be so much better than we were in the summer.”
Meanwhile, Paul Gustard insists England are intent on becoming the best defensive team in the world – a quest that begins today.
Assistant coach Gustard said: “We want to have the best defence, whatever percentage increase that equates to I don’t care.
“I want the best defence in the world and I’ve told that to Eddie and told that to the team. Eddie wants me to deliver the best defensive team in the world. Any team that wins the World Cup, apart from the last one when the best attack also won, has the best defence.
“Going into the World Cup we need to be bulletproof, trust each other, have confidence in each other, be adaptable, confrontational and absorb pressure when our attack isn’t firing.”
Gustard has revealed that Sam Underhill will be England’s defensive leader despite having only made his debut against Argentina in June. The 21-year-old averages 15 tackles a match for Bath this season and has the opportunity to stake a long-term claim to the openside duties following James Haskell’s loss of form and Tom Curry’s wrist injury.
“It’s important that Sam stamps some authority in that area though action and direction,” Gustard said.
“Sam’s style of play suits what we have been looking at from a seven. James Haskell performed that role brilliantly for us and what we expect from Sam is a dominant performance.
“He’s not a Haskell in terms of how he talks, thankfully, as there’s a bit of air space for other people but his action is excellent.
“He is a physical player, has stopping power, can hit people backwards and take momentum away in attack. He prides himself on stopping people with force.
“On the other side of the ball he must clear out efficiently and effectively. We expect him to go up another level against Argentina.”
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