Six Nations: Eddie Jones happy to chase '˜darlings of Europe'
The reigning champions are bookmakers’ favourites to secure an unprecedented third successive outright title, but Jones has turned the spotlight of attention on to his Celtic rivals.
Ireland are buoyed by a successful autumn and the achievements of their provinces in Europe, while Scotland’s recent form hints at a revival that could sweep them all the way to the title.
“We’ve got to be the hungriest team in the tournament to win and that’s what we’re aiming to be,” said Jones at the Six Nations launch in central London.
“That’s why we don’t mind these other teams being spoken of as the darlings of European rugby – it gives us something to chase.
“We can’t tell whether we’re darlings or not.
“All I can remember is last year we won every game apart from one and our rugby was rubbish!” he added.
Jones refuses to view Ireland as anything other than leading contenders – at least publicly – but cranked up the pressure on Joe Schmidt’s men ahead of their opener against France before turning his attention to Scotland.
“If you go in as favourites it comes with massive expectations. Fans, supporters, media, sponsors ...” Jones said. “It’s how you react to that expectation, but they’ve got a great coach and they’ve got good leadership in the team so I’m sure they’ll be able to handle it. But there’s always that question there.
“I’m sure all Ireland are worried about is the tricky game they’ve got first up against France. That’s a tricky game. I wouldn’t like to be playing France first with Jacques Brunel in charge of them. You don’t know what they’re going to produce.
“Scotland ... again they’re big darlings aren’t they? How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland!
“Murrayfield grows an extra 10,000 people but again, to play under the pressure of expectation is going to be a different question put to the team.
“They’ve got a great young coach in Gregor Townsend. He’s a bright guy. Makes me feel like it should be time to retire! And he’s got them playing well.
“But it’s different when you go in as underdogs from when you go and you’re expected to win and play with that panache.”
England have been blighted by the injury curse afflicting all nations and could be missing 18 players for their opener against Italy on Sunday week if Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown are added to the list of ailing or suspended players.
Jones has rated back row Robshaw and full-back Brown – both guaranteed starters – as “borderline” due to their respective back and eye injuries.
“Chris Robshaw would win any sort of water Olympics at the moment. He’s unbelievable in the pool,” Jones said.
“He did a water aerobics class with a bunch of Portuguese women yesterday (Tuesday). Apparently he was the best in the class.
“If we play Italy in the pool he’d be all right, but if we’re playing rugby then he’d be borderline to get there. Mike Brown is starting to do some light skills today (Wednesday) and we’d be hopeful that by the middle of next week he’d be all right to train. He’s also borderline for Italy.”
Second-choice tighthead prop Kyle Sinckler has a significant hamstring injury that is likely to rule him out of the entire Six Nations, while wing Jack Nowell’s ankle problem deepens the crisis in the back three.
Nowell could be back for the round-two fixture against Wales, leaving Jones with few options for the Italy match.
The wave of injuries that has thinned the champions’ ranks is mirrored by similar problems encountered by their rivals, but Jones views the crisis as a blip.
“You just have these runs. I don’t think it’s anything significant. You have ups and downs in the game and at this particular time there are a number of injuries,” he said.
“For the Lions players you can understand that the injury risk is high because of the lack of a proper pre-season that they have, but obviously they’re not all Lions players.”
Joe Schmidt insists Ireland must not become distracted by Jones’s “grenade” of claiming England will be weakened by injuries.
“I know Eddie is excited about the people he’s got, he’s just not telling you that,” said Schmidt, of Jones downplaying England’s chances. “It must be on the back of having 12 teams to select from and the eight days he’s had in camp as opposed to us having three. I know Eddie from old, and I know he’s going to throw in the odd grenade, and fair play to him for doing it. It keeps us on our toes.”