Welcome back England, we missed you, writes Brendan O’Brien
Well, we did, didn’t we? C’mon, likeable as Stuart Lancaster was, he tried to fashion an England side that had much more warmth about it and what did that do but leave everyone cold. Their own supporters eventually lost faith in a regime that had shown early promise but lost its way and the rest of us were simply left confounded by this ill-fitting humble culture.
It’s been like a panto without a villain to boo this last four years and, while it might be the bonhomie among supporters off the pitch that gives the Six Nations its unique charm, we should never underestimate the England team’s ability to rile the opposition, as was famously the case in 1977 when Wales’ Phil Bennett delivered an epic pre-match rant.
“Look what these bastards have done to Wales,” he spewed. “They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel.
“They buy our houses and they only live in them for a fortnight every 12 months. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled, and punished by the English — and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”
So, enter Eddie Jones and not a moment too soon. The very idea of an Australian tending to the Red Rose may be difficult to fathom but the shoot-from-the-lip Jones is an ideal fit for a rugby side that, at its best, has always traded in arrogance and a Millwall attitude of ‘nobody like us and we don’t care’.
It is in their DNA.
To think back to those great sides led by Will Carling and Martin Johnson and the personalities endemic to both eras — the names of Brian Moore and Austin Healy are surely enough to paint that picture — is to question why the English would ever want to stray away from an approach that combines haughty superiority with old-fashioned beef and a jagged edge.
Dylan Hartley as skipper? Perfect.
All of which isn’t to say that Lancaster was wrong in his approach. He inherited a side from Johnson that was in disarray after the 2011 Rugby World Cup, a tournament where they are remembered for a bout of dwarf-tossing and one player jumping off a ferry rather than anything they managed to achieve on the fields of New Zealand.
Lancaster was big on culture. Humility. Jones doesn’t do humility but he understands culture which is why for all his protestations about press conferences being a waste of everyone’s time, he is not averse to dropping some delicious verbal grenades as he did earlier this week before his first game in charge, against Scotland in Edinburgh. “Arrogance is only bad when you lose,” Jones pointed out when explaining that points are more important than perceptions of his team north of Hadrian’s Wall or elsewhere.
“If you are winning and you are arrogant then it is self-belief. We’re going to believe we are going to be the best team in the world. If that’s being arrogant then it is being arrogant. To me it is belief about what we can be.”
We can be a self-centred lot on this island. So can everyone else. The focus in all half-dozen nations this week will be firmly on their own. Even opening opponents can be given cursory thought by the masses, but the prospect of a rejuvenated England, while bad news for Ireland and the rest, is excellent news for the tournament at large.
Nothing should take away from Ireland’s achievement in claiming the last two titles but there was a sense even this time last year that England were losing their way under Lancaster while France were waist deep into a period of internal crisis under Philippe Saint-Andre that may or may not be dispelled by the succession to his job of Guy Noves.
New coaches tend to have an uplifting effect, no matter the sport, and there has been no shortage of those who have implored their charges to hunker down under a barrage — real or imagined — of criticism and dislike. Jones has been doing something like that this week with his talk of “canny” Scottish gamesmanship involving loud pipers, fervent crowds, and deliberately slow bus rides through the streets.
This is more like it, isn’t it?
And if anyone has any doubt about whether the new guy has his finger on the pulse of his new squad,then it was surely dismissed by the confirmation that Lancaster’s abhorrence for alcohol and, specifically, the imbibing of it has been watered down with a far more relaxed approach to the means by which the England boys wind down.
“He wants us to gel as a squad pretty quickly,” said scrum-half Danny Care who was thrown out of a Lancaster Six Nations squad for drink driving but is expected to be a central pillar in Jones’ reconstructed England.
“We have been working hard on the pitch and enjoying ourselves a little bit off it as well, which has been good.”
All of which will count for nothing without the desired results. “This looks a good team on paper,” said Nigel Melville in 1984 before he became the youngest man to captain what was also a new-look England on his debut against Australia at Twickenham. “Let’s see how it looks on grass.” They lost 19-3 and waited another seven years for a Five Nations title. Don’t expect a repeat of that.
Email: brendan.obrien@ examiner.ie
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved