There may still be over a week until Ireland face England at Twickenham but the mind games have already started.
As Eddie Jones prepares to welcome Joe Schmidt’s side, he is in no doubt as to what will be required to overcome the reigning Six Nations champions.
“Well we have got to win the Aussie Rules contest, don’t we? That’s the first thing we’ve got to do,” said Jones.
“They kick 60% of their possession, so we have got to win that Aussie Rules battle. Winning that battle will go a long way to winning the game.”
Jones’ tongue may have been in his cheek when he made such a comment, and even more so when he jokingly added that Aussie Rules side Hawthorn were coming over to help in the preparations, but it was by no means an indication of England underestimating their opponents.
On the contrary, Jones is full of praise for the success Ireland have enjoyed during Schmidt’s time in charge.
Since taking over in 2013, the New Zealander has led the country to back-to-back Six Nations and a World Cup quarter-final.
With that record, in Jones’ eyes, Ireland are the team to beat in the northern hemisphere despite their troubles, and the Australian is well aware of the challenge that awaits his side next week.
England may sit top of the Six Nations with two wins from two, but the camp is understanding of the step up that will be required next week at Twickenham.
“We’re playing against Ireland on Saturday week and they’re the benchmark of European rugby,” said Jones.
“Before the World Cup, they were the team who were tipped to progress the furthest.
“They were everyone’s favourites. They’ve won two Six Nations (in a row) and they’ve got a lot of good players, so we’ll see where we are next Saturday.
“It’s a step up because we’re going from... I won’t use Clive’s [Woodward] terminology but we’re going from one tier to the other. That’s the reality; Ireland are in the top tier of European rugby.
“You have got to admire Ireland, they are a clever side.
“I think they are one of the best coached sides in the world full stop. They use their resources well and that’s why they have won two Six Nations.
“They have decided to go that route, it works for them. Who am I to criticise it?” Ireland’s prominent and successful kicking game is in many ways symptomatic of a boom in that particular brand of rugby. It has led, as Jones explains, to an adaption in the way the game is coached.
The finer details that come together to deal with an offensive kicking game are now drilled into the players and it is exactly those qualities that England will have to call upon when they face Ireland in a week’s time.
“The great thing about rugby is that rugby changes all the time,” said Jones.
“So we’ve now got this kicking game that three years ago, well maybe in England, but around the rest of the world, wasn’t coached greatly.
“You’ve got the escorting of players back, the protection of catches. You’ve got all those sorts of small details that you have to coach now.
“And the teams that do those things well are the teams that win those aerial battles. It is not just about having the tallest, bravest catchers, you’ve got to work off the ball to ensure that you give them protection.”
The key to Ireland’s kicking game undoubtedly lies within their half-backs and the formidable pairing of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. If England are to put a stop to Ireland’s game plan then Jones knows the scrum-half must be kept quiet.
“You’ve got to ensure you put kick pressure on the kickers and Murray is one of the most outstanding half-backs in the world,” said Jones. “He is very sharp, he’s street-smart. He senses things well and he has got a good kicking game. So he is a guy we are going to have to put a fair bit of pressure on.
“But again to get to Murray, you have got to do other things.”
For now, Jones is keeping his cards close to his chest with regards to what exactly those other things are. But one thing that is for certain is that, with a week to go, the mind games have already begun.
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