Eddie Jones expects England to renew their raw-boned rivalry with France in the coming seasons – a feature from the early 1990s when Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup finalists won 14 of 17 championships and reached three World Cup finals between them. Not so much when a reserve French side runs out at Twickenham, but in the build up to the 2023 World Cup which the French are hosting.
France were less than average in the 2010s after winning the grand slam at the start of the decade when their modus operandi seemed to be to crash and tackle for an hour and then fade because of inferior conditioning. However, under Fabien Galthié and his carefully assembled teams of coaches, they have rewound the dial.
“They are on a mission,” said Jones, who was forced to make a late change to his England team on Saturday morning when the prop Mako Vunipola failed to recover from a leg injury he sustained against Wales last week and was replaced by Ellis Genge, with Joe Marler joining the bench.
“They are developing a style of play that suits their mentality and have gone back to playing more like a French team while understanding how to do it in the modern game, such as using the kick to create unstructured opportunities. That allows them to play with their notorious flair.
“When they make a half-break or slip an offload, the whole team comes to life and it’s like they’re playing in the backyard. They are taught from an early age to have good support lines and their ability to keep the ball alive is outstanding. I am excited that France are doing it their own way: we have to paddle hard because if we don’t, our boat is not going to go faster than theirs.”
England are looking to win two tournaments in the same year for the first time since 2003, having already pipped France in the Six Nations. They have played largely with the handbrake on this autumn as Jones looks to build gradually so that the side is at its peak when the World Cup starts.
“We are developing a really strong side and the exciting part is that the players still do not know how good they can be,” he said.
“We have a number of high-class players who would be selected by any team. What is driving its competitive edge, and you only have to look at the back row, is the standards being set by the top players. Guys coming in need to meet those.”
Jones wants at least 20 of his players to be chosen by Warren Gatland’s British & Irish Lions for next year’s tour to South Africa, both to give him the chance to look at options on England’s trip to north America and because it would mean England were the dominant team in the 2021 Six Nations. He is open to any of his coaching team being taken, as Steve Borthwick was in 2017, and the defence coach, John Mitchell, who played with Gatland for Waikato in the 1980s.
“There has been contact,” said Jones. “Warren has gone round the unions and chatted to the chief executives. We are open to any opportunity for our staff and coaches to grow having seen the benefits with Steve, who came back from New Zealand having added more to his coaching repertoire. I caught up with Warren during the end of the club season when we had a couple of beers and something to eat, but we did not chat about coaches.”
Only three of France’s matchday squad when they defeated England in Paris last February will be involved at Twickenham, following a pact with the Top 14 clubs over the release of players in the expanded autumn campaign, and they were all on the bench. The home side retain 13, but Jones has told his players to assume nothing against unpredictable opponents who have rediscovered their joie de jouer.
“France have a standard way of picking their team now and these guys are coming through and fulfilling roles for their team,” he said. “I like national teams to play to their strengths. At one stage France probably tried to copy New Zealand, but they are bringing Frenchness to their game as we bring Englishness to ours.”
Maro Itoje, one of the contenders for player of the tournament, echoed Jones’s warning about France. “They are a dangerous side with very good players,” he said. “France were the last team to beat us and we had more experience than them then. We did not have the right mindset that day and we are not taking them for granted at all.”
Twickenham will host spectators for the first time since the beginning of March. Family members of the England players will be among the crowd of 2,000, a welcome return after months when messages from home have been played on video in team meetings on the eve of games.
“My parents and brother will be there,” said Itoje. “My mum and dad are Nigerian and do not come from a rugby background. They did not know much about the game until I started playing. They always supported me, but rugby was not something they had planned for me.
“Now they are so in love with the game there is not a match they do not watch and they travel across the world to support me and enjoy the spectacle. They have become genuine fans and while I have missed them, they have missed something that has become part of their lives.”