This time 12 months ago even the most optimistic England rugby fan could not have predicted the confidence which surrounds their bid for glory in this year’s Six Nations.
Since taking charge, Eddie Jones’ reign has been nothing short of remarkable: 13 games, 13 wins, a Grand Slam and a clean sweep against Australia in their own backyard to boot.
But for a man with the hunger and tenacity of Jones, such success is not enough. His aim is to make England the No.1 team on the planet, culminating with the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
To achieve that, however, you need world class players, something Jones admits he currently does not have at his disposal.
“You have to understand the connotation of what the words ‘world class’ means,” he says.
“It means that that if someone picks a world XV, he picks a world class player for a position and it’s a unanimous choice.
“If you look back at the New Zealand side of the past eight years - [Richie] McCaw and [Dan] Carter were unanimous choices.
“They were world class players because every game they played eight out of 10, they never slipped down to a six out of 10 and they never slipped down to a five out of 10. And that is what world class means.
“We have got some players doing exceptionally well, but that doesn’t mean they are world class yet and it doesn’t mean they are not great players. It is not a detriment on English rugby that we don’t have that.
“Now obviously we do [want that]. We want to have by 2019, four or five world-class players because that gives you such a solidity of performance that it doesn’t matter what game you are put in, you are going to play well because you have got those four or five guys who are going to play eight out of 10 every game. We will get there.”
Given their stellar 2016, Jones’ assessment of his squad may seem a little harsh but in reality, it is merely a demonstration of where England are. This is a side aiming to conquer the world and as such nothing but the best will suffice.
Too often, usually by pundits, the term world class is banded about.
However, if we take Jones’ line on the matter we can see England are on the right lines, even if they are not there yet.
In the Australian’s eyes, to be world class is to be a serial winner, a person who has the mental strength to stay at the top when it is so easy to slip off the edge. Muhammad Ali, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods are three who comfortably meet Jones’ criteria.
In contrast, just look at how Leicester City have struggled this year. They are the perfect example of the opposite. Yes, they are great players and their achievement last season was impressive - but are they really world class? The flash in the pan nature of their triumph suggests not.
And that is exactly what Jones is trying to achieve with a group who are still blossoming. The likes of Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell may well be in some people’s world XV, but can they consistently deliver game in game out as per Jones’s definition of world class?
England’s stars need to become serial winners, just like Carter and McCaw. These are men who won multiple World Cups, maintaining a high level of performance in the process. You would not find them satisfied with one sensational year. But as for this upcoming Six Nations and continuing on their path to the summit, surely England’s lack of world class players will damage their hopes of retaining the Grand Slam?
“No I don’t think so,” says Jones. “If you look across the Six Nations how many players would be automatic selections in a world XV?
“There wouldn’t be too many. So there is no disadvantage there.”
Jones’ hunger to make England the No.1 team in world does, however, leave you wondering where Dylan Hartley fits into all this.
Here is a player who has been banned for 60 weeks of his career with his latest suspension. He comes into this Six Nations without a competitive match for over two months.
“He’s an expert in it,” Jones quipped last week as someone asked Hartley whether he would be match sharp for France this weekend after his latest ban.
But even with his coach’s witty jokes, Hartley is aware about the threat he put to his captaincy after his latest episode.
“I could have jeopardised a lot - put myself and the team in a difficult position,” he says. “Since then I have had clear directives from the management of what they expect.
“I always reflect, I reflect most days actually. I think being a part of this group is a privilege. It is an aspirational place to be and you know the team is going somewhere - we want to be the best team in the world. To be a part of that and to feel like it is going somewhere is a privilege.
“I have had a good reality check and I understand I am in a privileged position, whether that be as a player in the team or captain.”
Hartley’s run-ins with the law has led many to question his position as captain, and indeed his place in the team given the fact Jamie George is performing so well for Saracens. If Jones is looking to develop a squad of players who are constantly playing an eight out of 10, can he really trust an individual who is prone to dismissals? And, moreover, is that man the right person to be leading England forward?
To get your answer, you only need to look at how Hartley has responded to his latest ban.
And, if this really is his last chance, boy has he seized it with both hands.
“If you have a look at him now he has just got a completely different body,” says Jones. “He has really worked hard. It is probably the fittest he has ever been in his life and he has got a great opportunity to go forward.
Hartley did indeed look in fantastic shape as he posed for photos at last week’s official Six Nations launch and that is down to him.
One day a week he has been travelling from Northampton to London to work with England’s conditioning staff, while he has used GPS tracking systems to ensure his sessions replicate the intensity of a Test match. In his own words he is “basically playing a game five days a week.”
Now that is the man England want leading them as they continue to grow under Jones. A man who, knocked back for the umpteenth time in his career, has fought back to keep hold of his place. Whether Hartley has learned his lesson and fully changed to appreciate what he has, we will have to wait and see. Indeed, in many ways it is similar to England’s quest to become the best team in the world - only time will tell.
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