England commanding respect ahead of Slam chance

Date published: March 17 2017

England are a level-headed enough group of young players to not be blinded by illusions of grandeur heading into Saturday's Test, which is why the talk of squeezing a fixture against the All Blacks into November's schedule has felt like odd timing all week.

That most-hated cliché, taking each games as it comes, rings more true this week than nearly all others, what with a Grand Slam in sights along with the Tier 1 wins record.

We might not be about to get the Grand Slam decider hoped for by all at the start of the tournament – those hopes ended long ago when Ireland were upset by Scotland – but then again there is still enough for devotees and fairweather supporters alike to tuck into, what with it being St. Patrick's weekend in Dublin and the aforementioned accolades on the line.

England have memorably slipped up in the Irish capital in the past, and so to see them as favourites with the bookmakers reflects the confidence Eddie Jones and his side now command after 18 wins in a row, 17 coming under Jones.

There have been matches where England underperformed and others where they commanded respect. Those wins over France and Wales were slugfests requiring impressive resolve.

Bludgeoning Scotland over the course of 80 minutes was certainly easier than expected and without doubt deserving of praise, having had their wobbles against France, Wales and Italy.

And the overpowering sense leaving Twickenham following an 18th straight win, with another Grand Slam up for grabs, is that winning the Six Nations title alone is not enough for Jones or this squad.

Winning the Championship alone in the Lancaster era would have resulted in widespread jubilation. Now under Jones it certainly registers, but equally feels like half a job done.

Settling into that mode of expecting to win is hardly a shock. Winning over and over again, much like losing, becomes habit. 

England have to lose at some point and it may well happen on Saturday, but the foundations for success that were started by Lancaster are now a flourishing project under Jones capable of handling multiple setbacks.

Being currently in the middle of England's turnaround makes it hard to fully appreciate how far the side have come. For perspective, it will be 18 months on Sunday since Japan, under Jones, shocked the world with that win over South Africa.

England's humiliating World Cup exit soon followed, so to find themselves possibly waking up on Sunday as back-to-back Grand Slam winners and having won more matches in a row than any other Tier 1 nation, keeping the despair of the Rugby World Cup in mind, would be frankly astonishing.

Last year their resurgence was embodied by Chris Robshaw, injured throughout this year's Six Nations, and since November that baton has been successfully taken up by Tom Wood.

Wood's Test career appeared to be finished when Jones took over. On Saturday he will in all likelihood come off the bench to win his 50th cap having grafted his way back into the set-up.

“I congratulate Tom Wood on his personal milestone. He is a committed team man, who has fought his way back into this set-up and has been a great contributor to the team on and off the field. He works very hard and it’s a great reward for him," Jones said in England's team release.

Teams coached by Jones are renowned for their hard work, and by giving the former Wallabies coach their all combined with his direction England have become fitter, faster and all together more skilful.

Save the talk of the All Blacks for that weekend, as much out of respect for Ireland as well as avoiding another distraction.

England's confidence, not to be confused with cockiness, and the absense of Conor Murray point to a second Grand Slam. Though it only be earned by emerging on top in a punishing, brutal Test match, with no points won easily.

Ireland's flat effort in Cardiff, spurning chance after chance when within a converted try in the second half, is unlikely to happen again. Being widely written off has never hindered Ireland in the past either. Instead they thrive off it. 

But whatever Joe Schmidt has in store – planning to unleash an aerial bombardment on England like two years ago or whether to chance Ireland's arm out wide – England feel entirely prepared. 

Their set-piece continues to progress, more often than not dominating proceedings at the lineout especially, while the crispness to last weekend's passing and running lines commanded respect. That certainly wasn't being during England's slow death in the last Rugby World Cup. 

by Ben Coles