TWICKENHAM — Four of England’s match day squad had not been born the last time they achieved a perfect year back in 1992 and a further three were yet to reach their first birthday. But win against Australia on Saturday and the class of 2016 will have written their own chapter in the national team’s 145-year history.
Talk of history, nationalism and a supposed ruined legacy have driven the narrative leading into Saturday’s Test; Anglo-Australian relations have been strained, stretched and tested. But sideshows, pre-match verbal hostilities and allegations over illegal scrummaging will be parked for two hours on Saturday.
England are on the verge of history as they chase the unbeaten year– their first since 1992 when they won all six Tests — and Eddie Jones has challenged his team to produce their Nadia Comaneci match, the perfect game.
England’s 2016 saw them start with a grand slam, then a one-off Test win against Wales, a 3-0 clean sweep on Australian soil followed and now they are three from three in the November internationals. They hope Saturday’s will be lucky number 13 this year under Jones.
Jones has attempted to downplay the significance of their run, focusing on the long-term and ultimately the 2019 Rugby World Cup. But given where Jones picked up this England side at the start of the year — one still wounded by their dismal World Cup performance and the fallout — it is a remarkable feat.
England’s head coach Eddie Jones announces his first squad. Niklas Halle’n/AFP/Getty Images
Back in January, Jones faced the press in the small media room in the heart of Twickenham and unveiled his first England squad. There was a post-World Cup cull and he talked of how England must transform their mindset into one of perennial winners. There were no grey areas.
On Friday Jones stood in the same room, now with 12 wins under his belt and all manner of one-off gongs to sit alongside the Six Nations trophy in the Twickenham cabinet. But Jones is not retrospective, nor one for drifting into blissful nostalgia.
“I never really thought about it,” Jones said when asked about whether he ever thought they’d go the year unbeaten when he took the job. “All I thought about was getting better every day.
“We wanted to work harder and get the players to aspire to be better. We’ve move along that track. If we win tomorrow we still have a long way to go and we know that. We want to be the number one team in the world and to achieve that we need to keep getting better every day.”
Saturday’s Test against the Wallabies should be their hardest game this year. England are without seven frontline players and Australia will be channelling the hurt from their 3-0 series loss in the summer and will have taken notice of this week’s talk over their illegal scrum and what their coach Michael Cheika has had to say about Jones, Glen Ella and general Australian bonhomie.
Jones hasn’t taken the bait this week — he even dodged commenting on getting the clown treatment from one Australian newspaper — but it has been cantankerous between the two camps this year.
Before England arrived on Australian soil for their series in the summer, Jones had lit the blue touch paper saying he was expecting a coordinated attack on his side from the local media.
The local customs in Brisbane gave him a going over but that was his only set back as he masterfully controlled the agenda, leaving a string of hushed pundits in his wake and Cheika uncharacteristically quiet as England stormed to a 3-0 win.
Eddie Jones celebrates after the second Test win. Jones, pictured with England’s James Haskell, coached the Wallabies from 2001 to 2005. The Aussie started coaching England in 2015.
Australian pride had been dented by one of their own but this weekend’s Test should be a different prospect. In the summer Jones talked of his England side adopting a ‘Bodyline’ approach, but on Saturday he is expecting Australia to bring their own Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee-esque fast-bowlers.
“Look, to beat them we’ve got to break them mentally and physically,” Jones said. “We know they’re going to come out in the first 20 minutes like there’s no tomorrow. We’ve practised, we’re equipped to handle it and we’ll win the game in the last 20.”
Jones is expecting an improved Australia side. He feels Stephen Larkham, the Wallabies’ backs coach, has learned from his mistakes in June and is happy again in his skin operating with a more Australian style of attack, focused around being flatter on the line and more options off either shoulder.
But Cheika says any off-field sideshows this week will have no bearing on Saturday’s match and it is down to the players to do the talking. “All those fun and games [with Eddie] are over now,” Cheika said. “The game will be decided by the best team of players on the day.
“All the other bits are sidelines and we’ve been concentrating on making sure our players are in the best possible spot to play the best possible rugby on Saturday. The match is right in our sights and the real focus behind the scenes has been on making sure we’ve got the right tactics, getting the selection right and the other stuff is a bit of a laugh.”
When the dust settles on Saturday’s match, Cheika will have holstered the “machine gun” Jones says he has unloaded this week and the England coach will be, in his own words, “sad because the teams got a great spirit and we’re going to break up” with their next match in February.
But for two hours on a frosty, bitterly cold December afternoon everything will be on the line at Twickenham. England will be chasing their slice of history while Australia will be doing their best to ruin the party.
“It’s their last chance of redemption because they’ve had a tough year and if they win this Test, they can go home happy,” Jones said. “If we win this Test then we create history.”
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