Friday, September 25

England vs Wales: Eddie Jones bids to block out the noise to keep Six Nations coronavirus chaos off the agenda

What was already the most unpredictable year in rugby union hit a new high – or low depending on how you view it – on Thursday when a second match was indefinitely postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak, only for no one to talk about it.

First Eddie Jones batted away all questions about England’s cancelled finale against Italy, then Owen Farrell and George Ford did the same. The party line was that the only game that mattered right now was Saturday’s encounter with Wales, understandably so from their point of view given these games are separated by the slimmest of margins. Since Jones took the England reins, the average winning margin in the four Six Nations games with Wales has been fewer than six points, a figure that only rises by three when the three other Tests are added.

Yet there was still an uncomfortable refusal to discuss anything to do with the postponed trip to Rome, or the disappointment of not completing the championship next weekend. It stretched to the point where RFU staff were more than willing to step in and cull questions regarding the same virus that is serious enough for the governing body to release advice online about preventative measures that will be taken this weekend. Maybe it shouldn’t be ignored, after all.

But in a season where a coach has been sent home from the World Cup for betting offences, a typhoon forced numerous matches to be cancelled, the Premiership and European champions were relegated in the biggest salary-cap scandal seen in sport and the rest of English rugby were cut adrift from the top flight, a pandemic of the scale of coronavirus hardly feels out of place.

Normally Jones spends the entirety of a Wales Test week discussing one of the fiercest rivalries in rugby union, perhaps the fiercest, but this week it has all been about coronavirus and postponements, and when the news doesn’t quite fit the planned agenda, the Australian must find a way to keep his players focussed on the task at hand.

“There’s a lot of noise. You guys provide the noise. We’ve got to make sure they don’t listen to the noise,” Jones said.

“Just (by) the message we give them about what’s important, what they can control, what can’t they control. The only thing they can control is their performance against Wales.”

Having admitted to accepting a responsibility to keep the game’s theatre alive, talk of a worldwide virus doesn’t quite fit the narrative for what the Australian wants to achieve this week. It led to him labelling his approach ahead of the Welsh visit as a “silent comedy”, with Jones stressing that events surrounding the postponed Italy match will have no impact whatsoever on the squad this weekend.

“In all fairness, teams don’t operate like that,” he said. “Teams operate around what’s most important in that day. That’s how you operate in a sporting team. You don’t have discussions about further down the track because there might not be a further down the track for any of us.

“The only thing we can control is Saturday’s game and we’ve got absolute 100 per cent focus on Saturday’s game. Once Saturday’s game is finished then we’ll worry about what’s going to happen next.

“The only thing I’m focussed on is Saturday’s game against Wales. We’ve got fantastic administrators. I’m sure they’re sitting in a nice teak (Six Nations) office in Dublin now, contemplating what to do.”

Amid the distractions, it has been lost that not only are England’s Six Nations hopes still on the line, but there is silverware up for grabs in the form of the Triple Crown. Having beaten Scotland and Ireland, England can at least secure themselves a trophy regardless of what Grand Slam-favourites France achieve over the next eight days, and with that added to the intense rivalry that exists between the neighbouring countries, there is still plenty on the menu to make this game appeal to fans amid the chaos.

“England versus Wales games are a little bit different, aren’t they?” added Jones. “Since I’ve been coaching, the average points difference is six points. They are tough affairs, it goes down to the wire.”

One way that Wales have had success over England is by beating them physically, with their 2019 victories in Cardiff – 21-13 in the Six Nations and 13-6 in a World Cup warm-up – featuring dogged defensive displays and a ruthlessness to take their chances where England failed. Those sides were steered by Warren Gatland, and though Wayne Pivac is now at the helm, Jones believes the core signs of that Welsh style remain visible.

“Particularly Wales under Warren have been one of the most physical teams in the world,” said Jones. “We saw that in the World Cup when they ran South Africa close in that semi-final in a tough, physical game. So they always bring that to the party and then Pivac’s obviously trying to add a more passing attack game, but they’ll still bring that physical quality.

“You never like to lose to Wales, and we lost last year. We were in the position we were in at half-time (10-3 up) and we’ve learned from that. That was one of the key games that got us in our best condition for the World Cup. It’s still a game that I’m sure every player who played in it, it irks them. It certainly irks me.”

If England make up for last year’s loss it may stand for little, with Jones admitting that the Triple Crown is not their motivation this season, and that will multiply if France beat Scotland on Sunday and go on to shoot for the Grand Slam against Ireland next weekend that at this stage remains on. Jones and his side could find themselves with their feet up watching that Paris fixture clutching on to the faintest of hopes that they will have the chance to win the title at some point over the remainder of 2020, but just like the end of this championship, it will all feel a little out of place.