“There’s always that question there,” Eddie Jones reflected during the January launch of the Six Nations. He was talking about Ireland, citing them as the favourites to win the tournament and describing the pressure that fertilises expectation and attention.
The question was whether Joe Schmidt’s side would be able to handle it, and six weeks on the championship is panning out in the way Jones laid out: predicted is the wrong word because England’s coach hardly conceded the title before a ball had been kicked and his dismissal of Scotland as “big darlings” who get people excited by moving the ball from side to side did not suggest an end to England’s 10-year unbeaten run in the Calcutta Cup.
With the start of the World Cup 18 months away, the tournament Jones has targeted since the day he left Cape Town to coach England, he is reaching a crucial juncture. He said this week, before picking the side to face France in Paris on Saturday, that no player was indispensable. In other words, he was prepared to drop anyone.
Selection is what separates the very best coaches from the rest. Warren Gatland has a reputation for being conservative tactically, although with Wales the style that evolved tended to reflect the preference of his players to be given direction rather than licence, but he has throughout his career given youth its head, starting with Brian O’Driscoll when he was in charge of Ireland.
George North was first capped at the age of 18, Sam Warburton was selected when he was a reserve for Cardiff Blues and Gatland quickly capped the likes of Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau. There have been selections that did not work out, Tom Prydie for one, but for the most part his instinct has been right; like Schmidt and Jones, he is not one to be swayed by media messaging.
Schmidt operates in a different way, enjoying success as his fellow New Zealander Gatland has. The Ireland coach is not one who sees a paradigm shift as contained in one example or even a few. There was a clamour for the Leinster full-back Jordan Larmour to be given a chance this Six Nations and the 20-year-old won his first cap against Italy as a second-half replacement for the injured Robbie Henshaw.
He had not been involved in the opening match against France in Paris and was left out of the 23 to face Wales. Just as the centre Garry Ringrose and the fly-half Joey Carbery had to be patient after outstanding performances for Leinster, so Larmour will have to wait until Schmidt believes he is ready to fit into a meticulously prepared side where nothing is done on a whim.
Jones has not tinkered hugely with his starting lineup since his first match in charge against Scotland two years ago. There have been some aberrations – Luther Burrell did not last long when the George Ford/Owen Farrell midfield axis was broken up in the first Test in Australia in 2016 (and Alex Lozowski has not featured since starting at inside-centre against Samoa in the autumn) while Teimana Harrison and Tom Wood have been sampled at No 7 and spat out – but he has largely used the same players and used the bench to look at alternatives.
Paul Hill, Kieran Brookes, Ollie Devoto, Alex Goode and Piers Francis have all been replacements who have not broken through. Jones is an avid watcher of Premiership matches as he looks to add to his squad: like Gatland, he has an eye for the next generation, players such as Lewis Boyce and Alec Hepburn who are not first choices for their clubs.
Jones has said he does not just consider a player on performance: he watches them closely, even when they run on to the field to see if they make eye contact with their opponent. He is looking for attitude as well as talent and uses his training sessions to identify the strong-willed and sift out the wanting.
Gatland and Schmidt do not have the playing resources of Jones; neither does Scotland’s Gregor Townsend, who retained faith in his key players after the collapse in Cardiff and was rewarded with victories against France and England. France have the numbers but all decade the selection policy of their four coaches has been wildly inconsistent: when Jacques Brunel took over from Guy Novès at the end of last year, he drenched his first squad in youth but after starting the 19-year-old Matthieu Jalibert at fly-half against Ireland, a move that evoked Gatland rather than Schmidt, he turned to a 32-year-old, Lionel Beauxis, who had not played Test rugby for six years, when the teenager was injured. Brunel has now recalled the 31-year-old François Trinh-Duc at fly-half for the match against England.
Jones has been widely advised to drop his captain, Dylan Hartley, along with the full-back Mike Brown as the World Cup draws near. Hartley misses the trip to Paris through injury while Brown has not been picked but the evidence of Murrayfield, when England played the final 25 minutes without the pair, did not offer much in the way of proof they are better off looking elsewhere.
England’s last World Cup campaign foundered on selection: dropping Ford for the match against Wales meant a sudden tactical shift where none was needed. Sir Clive Woodward’s immediate successors also perished because selections became erratic. It is not an exact science: Woodward’s first team in 1997 against Australia contained a raw Andy Long at hooker but Richard Cockerill played the second half.
England are hardly in a state of panic after one defeat but with New Zealand waiting at the end of the year Jones needs an uplift on performances: not one of the six so far this season has been the stuff of World Cup winners. He has not been well served by injuries but who has? This is when he really earns his money.
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