The Japanese equivalent of deja vu is calledkishikanand there is plenty of it in the air following theannouncement of the England teamto face Australia in Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final. Suddenly it is 2015 all over again, with George Ford ousted from the No 10 shirt on the eve of a defining game. English rugby, for better or worse, has lurched back to the future.
It is a huge call in anyone’s language on the eve of the squad’s biggest game for four years. Ford has been his side’s best player in Japan to date: alert, deft, skilful and smart.Owen Farrell, by contrast, has not been nearly as influential at 12. So how has Eddie Jones reacted? By picking Farrell at 10 and redeploying a “disappointed” (Jones’s word) Ford on the bench. If England win – as they have their last six Test meetings against Australia in the Jones era – it will be seen as a masterstroke. If not, Jones will be remembered as the obsessive tinkerman who flip-flopped once too often.
There is not a great deal in between. Snatching the baton off your in-form conductor is not how the world’s top orchestras tend to operate. The Last Night of the Poms? It could yet happen if England fail to react positively to the switch and Jones has misjudged the internal mood music. Ford has been his country starting 10 in all three of their games in Japan: all three have been victories with a try bonus point. Farrell, furthermore, has started at 10 in just one of his country last seven Tests.
If it feels like a slightly perverse gamble to be taking at this juncture, that is because it is. For many England supporters it will also induce a Groundhog Day shudder, given the uneasy precedent of 2015. Then Ford made no secret of his disappointment at beingjettisoned byStuart Lancasterfor the all-important Twickenham pool fixtures against Wales and Australia. England ended up disappearing intoan abyss of their own indecisionand the house of Lancaster crumbled shortly afterwards.
It was a similar story in 1999. Clive Woodward dropped his No 10 Jonny Wilkinson for Paul Grayson on the eve of their quarter-final against South Africa andEngland subsequently bowed out. Then there is the more recent case of Danny Cipriani, a match-clincher in the third Test against South Africa last year before beingsummarily cast aside. New Zealand may have won the 2011 World Cup despite their leading fly-halves all ending up injured, but it is not a position where chopping and changing makes life more straightforward.
Jones, though, remains a fervent believer that World Cups are won by hard-nosed sides who avoid getting suckered into playing much fancy stuff. “Once you get to the quarter-finals it’s about having the right mindset,” he stressed. “It’s about us playing to our strengths and trying to take away from what Australia want. We need to defend with brutality and when we have the ball we need play on top of them. ”
In other words, England think their best bet against the Wallabies – and , should it come to it, New Zealand next week – is to revive their old “white orcs on steroids” persona. Play hard and direct, don’t overcomplicate the gameplan, hang tough for the duration. Should his squad go on to lift the Webb Ellis Cup, Jones’s reputation as a tactical genius will be duly secured. Stumble now, though, and harsh questions will have to be asked, not least whether a dictatorial regime has delivered the big match returns it should have done.
No pressure, then, because Jones has also taken several punts elsewhere. No one doubts Henry Slade’s class but he has played just 40 minutes of rugby since 1 June. The recalled Mako Vunipola has had even less game-time, while England’s premier lineout caller George Kruis is on the bench. It will be a minor miracle if Billy Vunipola plays the game of his life, given how sore the big man’s ankle looked when helimped off against Argentina. Slade and Manu Tuilagi did play together outside Farrell in thestunning win over Ireland in Dublinback in February but the trio also started the loss to Wales and thedrawwith Scotland. For all Jones’s insistence about horses for courses and his “finishers” being as important as his starters, it would appear he primarily just wants to bosh the Wallabies first and then ask questions afterwards.
His teamsheet could also have more to do with rejuvenating Farrell ahead of a potential semi-final with New Zealand than anything else. As Cipriani and now Ford have discovered, Jones is instinctively drawn to the warrior spirit that pours from the Saracen fly-half – seven days a week, 365 days a year – like steam from a hot geyser. Whether or not he was worried about Australia targeting Ford’s defense, he also needs to find a way of releasing Tuilagi’s full destructive potential. What he absolutely cannot afford is for Australia to start playing as they did in the second half against Wales, when they belatedly found some space and expertly exploited it.
If they are going to win this World Cup, England will be hoping their forwards supply them with a dynamic platform regardless of who starts at 10. Should Ford have to come on with 10 minutes to go to rescue his side from the jaws of defeat, though, how wise will Jones’s selection really have been? All those months and years of talking up the priceless value of dual playmakers at 10 and 12 Currently have a hollow ring.
Alternatively, could it simply be that Jones is so deeply haunted by the notion of losing to his old mate Michael Cheika that visions of Samu Kerevi potentially running over Ford have been keeping him awake at night? Get bounced by the Wallabies and four years of work will vanish down the gurgler. If England do end up flying home on Monday, their players will be massively disappointed but for Jones it would be the end of the world.