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They say that great rivalries are not necessarily built on true hostility but Eddie Jones has always rather revelled in stoking the fire ahead of encounters with his native Australia. It is much easier, of course, to play the arsonist when you boast an unblemished record against an opposition – at Twickenham on Saturday, England are seeking eight straight Cook Cup wins.
Jones had time on Thursday afternoon for a deep dive into the psyche of his compatriots, delving into the history books for the origins of an enduring rivalry that he believes still holds particular weight.
“I know as an Australian that it’s probably hard for the English to understand what an important game this is for Australia,” Jones said, the England head coach speaking for his native opposition and suggesting that this is a rivalry fought right since England first sent convicts to antipodean territory soon after the 18th century expedition of the captain who now lends his name to the trophy.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Olympics, Test cricket, rugby league... this is the game that defines their season. We’ve always looked at England as the mother country – when we play them at sport it is an opportunity to prove we are not the smaller country. We have bit of an inferiority complex against the English.”
If there is an inferiority complex it will only have been emphasised by recent results. In the seven previous wins under Jones, England have scored in excess of 30 points on six occasions, most recently in the quarter-final victory in Oita at the 2019 World Cup.
Just as Joe Root’s side begin their quarantine in Australia knowing that an Ashes victory would be a reversal of a shoddy recent history, the Wallabies have travelled down from Scotland understanding that they must reverse pervasive trends.
Jones’s needless post-match criticism of teenager Emma Raducanu rather dominated the headlines after the thumping of Tonga, with the England head coach confirming that he had written to the US Open champion to explain his comments. The on-field question that emerged last Saturday was in midfield, and how Jones would accommodate a fully fit Marcus Smith and Covid-cleared Owen Farrell.
Some creative accounting means Jones has made four fit into three in midfield, with Manu Tuilagi pushed to the wing for just the second time as an England player to allow Farrell and Smith to start. Tuilagi may be, from all reports, in career-best shape but it will be a test of his adaptability at an unfamiliar position, even though it may present attacking opportunities.
“The players will mix and match a little bit based on their strengths,” explained Jones. “We believe that is the best backline for this game to complement a strong forward pack.”
Having proved so popular at the chapel across the Chertsey Road with Harlequins, Smith will now have chance to sermonise a full set of parishioners at English rugby’s cathedral, Twickenham, as a starter for the first time in these autumn internationals.
On the evidence of last week, he may be preaching to the converted. The Twickenham crowd gave choral accompaniment to Smith’s every involvement against Tonga. It is tough to recall a player so universally feted so soon into his career – Smith is a player for who causes coaches to purr with possibility and makes fans rise to their feet.
He and Farrell must reignite the embers left in the blazing of the Pacific Islanders. England’s ball was quick against Tonga – nearly 70 per cent of their rucks were concluded within the crucial three seconds – but an unchanged pack are expecting fiercer breakdown competition against Australia, led, as ever, by the enduring Michael Hooper, and developing under Dave Rennie, head coach since 2020.
Much as they might have been rocked by an impressive Scotland at Murrayfield last Sunday – losing 15-13 – there were shoots of new growth for Australia in the summer. Rugby Australia (RA) this week intensified their campaign to host the 2027 Rugby World Cup as a strategy to reverse the persistent problems of player drain to the National Rugby League (NRL) and (Australian Football League) AFL with a briefing in London. It would be a surprise if Australia were not awarded the 2027 edition, giving them six years to rebuild a Wallabies side desperate to move on from tougher times.
The Wallabies could do with Rennie not continuing to face the sort of availability issues that have seen the Australia coach shorn of influential midfielder Samu Kerevi and Quade Cooper since a breakthrough Rugby Championship. Kurtley Beale’s return is useful to lend experience and class from full-back, while Jones’s fond recollections of Scott Wisemantel’s time as England attack coach showed a respect for a smart operator who will no doubt have tricks up his sleeve for his old side.
If forward parity will be a pre-requisite to ending England’s winning run then the news of major problems on the tighthead is unfortunate. With the excellent double punch of Allan Alaalatoa and Taniela Tupou ruled out, James Slipper switches sides and London Irish’s Ollie Hoskins is the proximate prop set for a remarkable debut from the bench, having been called unexpectedly into camp this week.
He is joined among the substitutes by Will Skelton, ready for a Wallabies return having re-found himself first at Saracens and now La Rochelle. Little wonder, then, that England have countered Australia’s reserved reinforcements with a six-two bench balance, Sam Simmonds making a much-anticipated return to an England matchday 23. Sale Sharks’ Raffi Quirke and Bevan Rodd, called up after Joe Marler’s positive test, await debuts.
“From my experience, the team that dwells on previous results will suffer during the game,” said Maro Itoje, who will earn his 50th cap, failing to follow his head coach’s retrospective leading glance. “If we are looking at past games I think we are going to be in trouble. We need to see this as a fresh opportunity and attack it.
“Whether it is cricket, rugby, or drinking beer, [England against Australia] is always pretty intense, and the fans let you know about it. They keep on coming at you. They are a team that are moving in the right direction. We need to make sure we have our heads screwed on and are ready to go.”