England’s chariot running like a dream heading into the World Cup

Robert Kitson at Twickenham
<span>Photograph: David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

They love a bit of karaoke in Japan and England’s supporters were in full advance cry in the West Stand on a warm Saturday evening. Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer was particularly popular – “Ohhh, we’re halfway the-ere!” – and, for many, the time to start believing in Eddie Jones’s improving side has arrived. Keep playing like this and knocking on heaven’s door at the imminent Rugby World Cup will become a realistic possibility.

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The usual disclaimer about August warm-up games still applies but try telling Ireland this was a contest without meaning – or, indeed, any sort of contest. The gap between the teams in terms of energy, power and accuracy was wide enough to be embarrassing at times. From Joe Schmidt’s perspective, with less than four weeks to go until their tournament-shaping opening pool game against Scotland, this eight-try skittling was as worrying as it gets.

As for England, suddenly they are accelerating away in the opposite direction, their previously spluttering chariot newly serviced and running like a dream. There is just one snag. This is usually the point where they get ahead of themselves, start believing in their own brilliance and plummet as surely as Icarus. The difference this time is that Jones is determined to erase that possibility. He has been insisting for years that England will peak in Yokohama on 2 November and remains convinced “the best is yet to come”.

To that end he is taking the squad to Italy this week for what he calls “a mini pre-season” with a view to refocusing the minds of anyone even slightly tempted to relax. It will not be all hard work – there might be the odd Peroni involved – but between Thursday and Saturday England will not be lazing around in the gondolas of nearby Venice. The aim is to get the players even fitter and remind them that, decent warm-up form or not, stiffer challenges lie ahead.

In Jones’s mind it is akin to being a mountaineer: peaking too soon is no way to conquer Everest. “You never know exactly where you need to be because you don’t know where the opposition are,” suggested the head coach. “The only thing you do know is you’ve got to keep going forward and that’s hard. It’s like climbing a mountain; the higher you get, the more uncomfortable it gets. The ground gets shaky, your ears start to burn, your nose starts to run.” He believes upping the training intensity now and “going right back to the basics” is the best way to harden everyone’s resolve.

He also now has a clearer idea of his first-choice XV, having finally stumbled on his ideal midfield and back-row trios at, respectively, the 17th and 25th time of asking. With Manu Tuilagi returning at last to full fitness and back in his preferred 13 jersey, the temptation to start him, Owen Farrell and George Ford together when Joe Cokanasiga is also available on the wing will now be hard to resist. The same is true in the back row against sides who compete strongly at the breakdown: assuming they all stay fit, Billy Vunipola, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry offer an enticing mix of power, poaching ability and pace – if fit.

They remain the two most critical little words for every coach and the scan results on Mako Vunipola’s hamstring – the same one that required a summer operation – will be keenly awaited. That said, England still have Joe Marler, nobody’s idea of a weak link, at loosehead and a number of other key individuals running into some form. Maro Itoje must have rivalled Tuilagi for the man-of-the-match award while Cokanasiga reminded friend and foe of his colossal potential – England also coped far better with Saturday’s heat than the wilting Irish and the sight of Tuilagi running free again lends his side a further fresh dimension.

Those with long memories will recall Tuilagi, aged 20, running through Ireland to score an eye‑catching try in a warm-up Test in Dublin eight Augusts ago. On that occasion it proved a false dawn: Tuilagi ended up in Auckland harbour, England’s 2011 Rugby World Cup hopes having already been sunk by quarter-final defeat to France the previous day.

Head coach Jones will not allow his players to relax ahead of the World Cup.
Head coach Jones will not allow his players to relax ahead of the World Cup. Photograph: David Rogers - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images

Their prospects this time are improving by the day. If the big games at this World Cup were being played at Twickenham, as was the case in 2015, England might even be emerging favourites. The four previous World Cup campaigns, though, long ago taught Jones to expect the unexpected. For that reason he deliberately arranged for his players to arrive at the stadium around 20 minutes later than usual, to replicate what might happen in Japan. Better late, it transpired, than to follow Ireland’s example and not turn up at all.

Nothing much seemed to affect Cokanasiga’s timing: the big winger touched down twice and was a constant menace to an Irish defence that missed a staggering 38 tackles. Itoje also helped make a mess of the Irish lineout, leaving the visiting captain, Rory Best, to warn his players they will need to raise the intensity at which they train.

Related: Battered Ireland leave Twickenham nursing World Cup injury headaches | Robert Kitson

England already have that box ticked, with only Friday week’s final warm-up against Italy in Newcastle to play before they swap the north-east for east Asia. Hopefully they will take Harlequins’ Joe Marchant with them – the Marchant of Venice is too good a headline to waste – but, either way, they will relocate with the applause of Twickenham ringing in their cauliflower ears. Halfway there? Project Eddie feels closer to fruition than it has ever done.