If there is one nation Eddie Jones hugely enjoys pitting his wits against it is his native Australia. There are good reasons why England have beaten the Wallabies seven times in succession since 2016 and high on the list is Jones’s instinctive grasp, both psychologically and selectorially, of which specific buttons to push.
Not only does he understand exactly how the Aussies feel when they catch a glimpse of a white shirt but he also knows what they hate most about playing the Poms. Hence the announcement of an England side with Marcus Smith at No 10, Manu Tuilagi on the right wing and six forwards on a proactive bench. Collectively it has the potential to be a complete nightmare on Ramsay Street for a Wallabies side lacking some of their key tight forwards through injury.
Power and pace, of course, is a useful combo against anyone but, as they glance down the home team sheet, Australia might just wonder if this is an ideal moment to be fetching up at Twickenham. Owen Farrell is back as captain and determined to prove a point after his false Covid-19 positive, Maro Itoje will be winning his 50th cap, Smith is being unleashed for the first time against a major nation and Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt, Raffi Quirke and Max Malins can all up the tempo off the bench. Not since Harold Larwood’s heyday has an Australian side had to contend with so much destructive pace.
If Tuilagi on the wing feels like a slight cop-out in order to shoehorn Farrell back into the team, it has happened before, in New Zealand in 2014, when Stuart Lancaster did the same against the All Blacks in Dunedin. England lost that game by a point but, seven years on, Jones is not preparing to leave the big man standing idle out on the touchline. “We decided we’d pick the best players and the players will mix and match to their strengths on the field a little bit. All I see is a powerful player in the best condition of his career who will add to the ball players we’ve got inside. He’ll be able to roam on the field and play like a second or third centre.
“We have two great centres who can both find space and deliver a pass and the idea is that we then have people like Manu and Jonny May – one with power, one with pace – and Freddie Steward who has really good aerial skills. We feel like it is a really balanced back line. We are a young team … but we are ready to take them on and chase them down the street.”
Jones is not delivering such colloquial, plain-speaking quips by accident. A down-to-earth and aggressive England team makes it harder for Australia to get themselves up for the contest by casting their opponents as the arrogant, cravat-wearing soap-dodgers of weary stereotype. On the flipside, Jones is still happy enough to give the old colonial history pot a vigorous stir for the hell of it. “We have a bit of an inferiority complex against the English. The country started from convicts being sent down there. We’ve always looked up, always seen England as the mother country.”
The only caveat is Jones’s first-hand insight, having coached the Wallaby team that took England to extra time in the 2003 World Cup final, that no self-respecting Australian sportsperson will ever give up and that today’s sanitised Anglo-Aussie pre-match banter, mild compared to the “Pommie bastard” stuff of yesteryear, masks a slightly edgier truth. “I think I’m still Australian, mate. I understand how Australians think. It’s probably hard for the English to understand what an important game this is for Australia. This is the game they want to win.
“Just because the game’s gone professional, don’t assume those long-term rivalries have lessened in importance. We’re all taught now to be perfectly socially acceptable in the way we talk. If we mention something a little bit untoward you get hammered, don’t you? But it does still matter. We understand they won’t go away.”
Nor, though, will this particular England selection. While it would have been fun to see Dombrandt at No 8 from the outset, the prospect of him and the recalled Simmonds lurking on Smith’s shoulder in the final quarter really is tantalising. Had he not picked the young Harlequin to start at fly-half there would have been public protests but Jones still insists Smith’s supporters should temper their initial expectations. “We’re playing against the side that’s beaten the world champions twice. It’s a huge step but is he capable of doing it? Of course he is. He’ll rise to the challenge and handle it well but it is a big step for him.”
Much will hinge, clearly, on him dovetailing instantly with Farrell but Jones is adamant the duo can operate together long term. “We believe they are going to be a really good combination – not just for this game but in the future.”. With Jones also predicting “a high-volume game with a lot of running” a breathless opportunity is set to knock for Sale’s Bevan Rodd, the first rugby player from the Isle of Man to be capped by England in decades. If he is looking to make a fast start to his Test career the same will surely apply to his rapid clubmate Quirke as and when the head coach senses the time is right.