For the first time in eight years, England will tomorrow go into the unfamiliar territory of a Rugby World Cup quarter-final, and few – if any – know what will happen. Only four of the current squad know what knockout World Cup rugby feels like, while it has been even longer since Eddie Jones had that quarter-final feeling. From here on in, it doesn’t get much bigger than this.
Dreams will be ended, jobs will be lost and careers ended among the eight teams left at the big-stakes table. On Thursday, Jones compared the World Cup so far to a game of poker, suggesting England can only play the hand they’ve been dealt after their last pool game was cancelled. Is it the winning hand? Only time will tell.
But it was a different analogy that revealed the magnitude of knockout rugby ahead of Saturday’s match against his former team, Australia.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
a day, more exclusives, analysis and extras.
If England fail this weekend, the likelihood is that Jones will be sacked for falling short of expectations, and four years of rebuilding English rugby will have gone to waste. In the hills of Beppu, north of Oita where England will take on the Wallabies, Jones drew on the history of the samurai spirit to make it abundantly clear that he is aware of what is at stake.
“You know it’s do-or-die time,” he said. “You see those hills at the back of us? That’s where all the samurais lived. Every time the samurais fought, one lived and one died. It will be the same on Saturday; someone is going to live and someone is going to die.
“That’s what the game is about and that’s the excitement of the game. You get the best eight teams, all playing for their lives.”
The may seem a tad dramatic had it not been for the tragic circumstances that have surrounded this match. The death toll of Typhoon Hagibis in Japan reached 74 on Thursday, with Jones starting his press conference with a message of condolence to the victims, read out in Japanese. The 59-year-old was almost in tears again minutes later when the name of his late coach and friend Jeff Sayle was brought up, and given the role he played in not just Jones’s life but opposite number Michael Cheika’s as well, this quarter-final will be an emotionally charged one for the Randwick alumni.
Perhaps that’s why Jones withheld his punches when discussing Cheika – even commenting that he is “proud” for what the Wallabies coach has done to restore Australian rugby’s reputation – in order to leave the fighting to his players. There is no doubt that the England squad will have to up their level of performance from what they have produced do far if they are to beat a battle-hardened Wallabies outfit, which has led to Jones calling on his “warriors”.
His most loyal of warriors is of course Owen Farrell, the captain who moves back to fly-half at the expense of the unlucky George Ford. Farrell has been far from his best so far at this World Cup, but the prospect of Jones axing his captain was as likely as him failing to make a cricket reference this week: it just wasn’t going to happen. So even if Ford has been one of England’s standout performers so far, moving Farrell back to No 10 was always going to be Plan B.
But Jones is no fool, and when quizzed on how to get Farrell back to the talismanic figure that he has become, the head coach revealed he took matters into his own hands to ensure that the 28-year-old is looking after himself just as much as he is the team.
“He’s got quite a big job for us. He’s captain and he’s goal-kicker,” Jones explained. “The responsibility of being captain at the World Cup is much larger than normal Test matches, because you’re bringing a group of 31 players together for – how long have we been together now? Eight or nine weeks?
“You get all the family issues. You go to the dinner table, one brother is happy, one brother is unhappy. Someone doesn’t know if they are happy or not. He’s the father of that group, so to speak. His ability to delegate, to know what to say to players is a challenging experience for a young guy like him. He’s coping with it really well. But I feel like sometimes, maybe earlier in the tournament he spent too much time in the captaincy area and not enough on his own individual prep, but I’ve seen a real change in that this week.
“Why was Steve Smith so successful in the Ashes? One of the reasons was he didn’t have to worry about the bowling team, he didn’t have to worry about setting fields. All he had to worry about was batting. It’s much simpler when you’re just a player – when you’re captain you’ve got more responsibilities and as you go on as a captain you learn how to get the balance right.
“He’s a warrior. He leads from the front. He competes, he’s tough, and that’s what we’ve tried to produce in this team. We’ve got a tough team who competes hard. That’s how we want to play. That’s the England style of playing.”
There’s no doubting Farrell’s toughness – Wallaby lock Izack Rodda will remember all too well how much of a punch the fly-half can pack from last year’s shoulder charge that went unpunished – but questions of his mental fortitude when the pressure is on his team do remain. But it is fair to say that this quarter-final will be the biggest game of Farrell’s career so far.
After what has been an incredibly slow-burn of a World Cup so far for England, suddenly the samurais are needed to spring into life. This Saturday we will learn everything about Farrell’s captaincy, Jones’s grand plan and England’s warrior spirit and the stakes could not be any higher. Four years comes down to one match that will confirm whether England extend their stay in Japan until November or are sent tumbling out by a resurgent Wallaby team for the second World Cup in succession. It is do-or-die time, and one team will not survive.