Eddie Jones believes that fighting spirit will be needed to win a World Cup that the England head coach predicts will be the tightest yet, but not of the sort that led him to cull Mike Brown and Ben Te’o from the squad to prepare for the first of four warm-up matches for the tournament, against Wales at Twickenham on Sunday.
Brown, the Harlequins’ full-back, and Te’o, the centre who left Worcester at the end of the season and is expected to finish his career abroad, had moved to the periphery in the past year, having been keystones in Jones’s squad. Even without reports of an altercation between the pair during what was billed as a bonding session at the recent training camp in Italy, which Jones did not deny, they both had an outside chance of making the 31-man squad for Japan that will be announced on Monday.
“No,” replied Jones when asked if he could confirm that the pair had been involved in an incident in Treviso. Pushed on whether what happened in Italy was behind their exclusion from the squad to prepare for the first of two matches against Wales this month, he went on: “I never comment on why players are not selected and I am not about to start now. I respect your questions but I do not have anything to say on this.”
Te’o was disciplined at the end of the Six Nations when he and his fellow centre Manu Tuilagi stayed out late after the final match against Scotland. Jones said the centre remained in contention for the World Cup “as far as I know, unless you can tell me something else”, but when he was asked how he handled disciplinary matters, he said he had not had anything to deal with. “I could not be any happier with the way the team is going.”
Jones enjoyed a curry with his Wales opposite number, Warren Gatland, on Friday night. Sunday’s match, which sees Wales fielding, by some way, the more experienced team, was not among the matters discussed, which meant that Jones did not let on that three of the team he had announced that morning would not be playing, ostensibly because of injuries sustained in training: Ruaridh McConnochie and Henry Slade in the three-quarters and Sam Underhill in the back row.
Any obfuscation was directed more at his players than the opposition. “There has been zero disruption,” said Jones, whose side is the more physical for having Joe Cokanasiga on the wing and Courtney Lawes and Tuilagi on the bench. “Adapting, adjusting, bringing people in and out and finding your role is all part of a World Cup campaign. I have been involved in four World Cups, so I think I know how to prepare for a tournament. Some players have picked up knocks, but we want them all to understand what being part of a [match-day] 23 means. This is all part of the buildup.
“I watched the match between the United States and Japan on Friday. The USA, as tier-two countries do now, adopted a rush defence. The Rugby Championship games have been slogathons and I think the World Cup will be like that: tight, grinding affairs. So you use the warm-ups to experiment on ways you can win ahead of a World Cup that will be the tightest one we have ever seen.”
Unusually, given he will announce his World Cup squad less than 24 hours after kick-off against Wales, Jones has two uncapped players in the starting lineup: the scrum-half Willi Heinz and the flanker Lewis Ludlam, who replaces Underhill, with another on the bench in the hooker Jack Singleton. McConnochie, who did not train last week because of a hip problem, would have made it four but the debutants have been told that they are not on trial.
“Every day is selection day,” said Jones. “Sunday is just another one. We talk to players every day, seeing how they act, how they respond, how much they want to play for England, how they want to be part of a team, how they can develop from being a good club player to an international one. The match against Wales is just one of a number of selection days; no one is going to be selected or not on one match.”
Jones took over at the end of 2015 and in that time he did not cultivate a third scrum-half behind Ben Youngs and Danny Care. With the latter no longer seen as up to it after struggling against Japan last autumn, Jones has had to hurry auditions with Gloucester’s Heinz, at 32 England’s oldest debutant for 12 years, the latest on the casting couch.
Heinz will be vice-captain and, while he is uncapped, he scores over Ben Spencer in terms of experience. England’s failure to react when Wales overhauled them in the second half in Cardiff in this year’s Six Nations, together with tactical inflexibility, and their dazed response to Scotland’s comeback at Twickenham advanced the causes of the communicative Heinz, who played Super Rugby for the Crusaders.
“Willi has made a hell of an impact since coming into the squad,” said Jones. “We had a look at him a couple of years ago. He went back to his club and he has improved his game immeasurably. His ability to communicate effectively under pressure impresses me. Like Lewis Ludlam, who six months ago was struggling to get into Northampton’s B team, it shows what you can achieve if you work hard and are committed.”