Only four years after they werehumiliatedat their own tournament, England strode with uncommon authority to next weekend’s Rugby World Cup final in Japan, dispatching the All Blacks, no less, as if they were no more than the next hurdle that needed clearing.
WhenNew Zealandbecame world champions for the third time in London in 2015, they were hailed without argument as the “most dominant team in the history of the world”, the very phrase one of their own camp had scrawled on a whiteboard in their team room two years earlier. In Yokohama, England, so far from their troubled homeland, harnessed the energies of a multi-cultural line-up to confound the anticipated ascension of the All Blacks to a fourth crown, one that would have been their third in a row.
As England wallowed in the shame of a30 – point hidingfrom Australia four years ago to become the only hosts of the Rugby World Cup to fail to make it out of thepool stages, such a triumph against such fabled opposition was unthinkable. The man airlifted in to sort out the mess was Eddie Jones, thefirst foreign head coachEngland had ever appointed.
Half-Australian, half-Japanese, Jones was the colorful counterpoint to the man he replaced,Stuart Lancaster. The Yorkshireman had done much to develop England’s attack, but had faltered in the glare of a home World Cup. Jones loves nothing more than the spotlight.
Within a few months he had guided England to afirst grand slamsince 2003, empowering the team Lancaster had built while beginning the process of renewal. The road has been rocky since, aSix Nations title in 2017followed by England’s worst finish in that competition,second last, in 2018. But all the while, it seems, he was building, developing an attacking game in defiance of the modern preoccupation with defense, even while his own defense was leaking tries with an abandon that inflicted more than a few indignities.
It is possible to believe it was all part of the plan. Like the best strategists, Jones presents his work now that it istoo late for Australia last week, New Zealand this, to respond. Beating the All Blacks this way is nothing like the magnitude of shock he engineered when hisJapan team beat South Africaon the opening weekend of the 2015 World Cup , but the easy barbs of the past couple of years about a shambolic, disorderly England have now been turned on the cynics. In a rugby context at least.
Surely no team loses on purpose, but Jones has been quite happy to let his Celtic rivals assume the mantle of Six Nations champions recently, (Ireland in) ,Wales earlier this year. He manifestly relished Wales’s attainment of number one in World Rugby’s rankings on the eve of the tournament. “They’re favorites for the World Cup,” he proclaimed with a straight face afterWales had beaten Englandin a warm-up Test in Cardiff in August. “I’ve got nothing else to say, mate. You go number one, you’re favorites for the World Cup. ”
Wales may yet join England in the final on Saturday, which would be the first all-European final. Just as delicious to Jones, no doubt, would be if South Africa were his opponents, having acted as consultant to theSpringboks when they beat Englandto become world champions in 2007, the last time either side reached the World Cup final.
Wales, meanwhile, have never made it beyond the semi-finals they reached in1987 and 2011. For all their recent successes, the bookies make them slightly bigger underdogs against South Africa in the second semi-final as they did England in the first.
There’s no doubt who are favorites now for the big prize next weekend. England will be number one in the world on Monday, for the first time since Jones took over, for the first time since2004, just after Jones’s first taste of a World Cup final. He was coach to his native Australia in defeat to none other than England on that famous night inSydney, 2003.
Sixteen years on, as coach of a fourth different team at a World Cup, Jones has shown his hand with a defining victory over one of sport’s most storied phenomena, let alone rugby’s, but the manner in which England reacted to it was as impressive as the win itself. A smile of satisfaction, perhaps, but no wild celebrations and quickly off to the tunnel to ready themselves for the next date.
If Jones can work his team into the right frame of mind to win again next week, the turbulent highs and lows of the past four years will seem a tour de force – the highs and lows indeed of the past 25 years of his coaching career. And if it could be Wales who face England, coached by another mastermind inWarren Gatland, the New Zealander who will take his leave after11 glorious years in charge, the poetry would be poignant for a restive Britain turning in, on and against itself.