Eddie Jones has urged England to embrace their inner Sir Edmund Hillary as they contemplate scaling a significant peak in Dublin on Saturday, back-to-back Grand Slams that would be the Everest of their expectations.
The exhortation to “embrace greatness” has been resonating round the England camp in the build-up to the finale of the 2017 Six Nations Championship. The title might have been secured but the mission is far from over.
“To go from where we are to greatness takes another step of endeavour,” said Jones, the England head coach, as he announced two changes, Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson, in the team to start against Ireland. “It takes greater focus, it takes greater persistence, it takes greater emotional output. It is like climbing up a mountain. Every time you go to another level of the mountain it becomes more unstable. The ground becomes more unstable, your ears hurt, your nose hurts. It is exactly the same when you are climbing the ladder of success – everything becomes a bit harder.”
Jones readily admits that England do not yet possess “the density of leaders to win a World Cup”, but he has no doubts that this side are equipped to confront the challenge that awaits them at Aviva Stadium. In warning of the possible peril that lies in store, that most teams in the Championship have one big performance in them, he identified his own side as being set apart from the norm. “We are not most teams –we are a different team, we have shown that and we are ready to take it to another level on Saturday.”
England have travelled this way before, to Dublin specifically when they were routed in 2011 as they went for a Grand Slam on the final day and again in Cardiff two years later. But there is already one Grand Slam in the Twickenham locker, the spoils claimed 12 months ago on another seemingly forbidding assignment in Paris.
It is intriguing that the Grand Slam is what has focused English minds, not the possibility of becoming the most successful country in the history of the game by notching a 19th consecutive victory. One has a tangible return and is acknowledged as a mark of distinction given that it has only ever been achieved five times while the other milestone is open to questioning as to who played whom.
And, significantly, far from being daunted by what lies in store, for good or ill, Jones believes his team have come to terms with their hard-won status.
“We are a better team now [than last year], more adaptive, more resilient, more self-reliant,” said Jones. “What will show if we have [what it takes] will be in the intensity of our game, how quickly we reload in defence, how quickly we re-form in attack, how quickly we chase kicks, how quickly we get back to cover kicks. We have to work hard to get into the right mental state [having won the title] but we are capable of doing that. We will go to the Aviva ready to play and ready to take the stage.”
Nothing has been assumed, nothing has been taken for granted, not even the fact that England gave a defining performance in posting a record score of 61-21 against Scotland last weekend to secure the title with centre Jonathan Joseph scoring an eye-catching hat-trick.
“It is like scoring a century one week [at cricket] but if you try to score a hundred the next week in the same way you finished your last hundred, you will get zero,” said Jones. “J J has to do the simple things well. We have to do the little things well, win your scrum, take them ball forward, don’t give them any space at the breakdown, get off the line, over and over again. If we do that, we will get opportunities. You can never just repeat a performance. You never get a head start.”
To that end, the two changes will add heft as well as zip to England’s game, albeit Watson saw plenty of action against Scotland given that he replaced the injured Elliot Daly early on. Daly has come through all the head injury return-to-play protocols to take his place on the left wing with Jack Nowell dropping to the bench for Watson, who offers “great pace and good skills in the air”, according to Jones.
England have addressed all the issues they feel they need to have mastered if they are to avoid a Saturday-night anticlimax, being presented with the trophy after losing to Grand Slam-deniers Ireland.
“We are vulnerable,” said Jones. “We know the pitfalls of what can happen, we know how much the Irish dislike the English and how much they like spoiling the party. Ireland do not have to worry about failing. It is winner-takes-all for them and that makes them even more dangerous. We know all these things and we have to be good enough to deal with them.”
Crampons to the ready, Everest awaits.