Eddie Jones will hold clear-the-air talks with his England squad to try and reduce the impact of the Saracens salary cap furore on the national team’s Six Nations prospects. Jones will gather his players together in Portugal on Thursday and tell them to resolve any issues that might disrupt team harmony prior to their opening game in France, a week on Sunday.
All kinds of questions currently hang over Saracens’ England contingent following the confirmation their club will be relegated to the Championship at the end of this season. Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Elliot Daly are all England regulars and Jones does not want the forthcoming campaign to be undermined by the continuing fallout from north London or any lingering bitterness among rival clubs.
“We need to get everything out on the table, 100%,” said Jones. “It is common sense. Say what you feel. If players are angry about it then say it. At the end of the day, there are 35 players that all want to play for England. Their job is to get ready to play for England and sort it out. We will help them sort it out. I don’t envisage any problems, in fact I think it is an opportunity for the team to get tighter.
“I’ve gone around over the last couple of weeks and met with most of the players, to find where they are at. They wouldn’t be in the squad if they weren’t in the right mindset.”
Jones is also keen to draw a line under his side’s World Cup final disappointment, almost three months on from their emphatic defeat to South Africa in Yokohama. “It is going to be a long meeting,” said the head coach. “We have got a World Cup debrief, we have got to debrief Sarries. If there are any other issues we have got to sort them out. We are not robots; you don’t know how long it is going to take.
“We have got players from 11 different clubs, 11 different ideas of what is right and what is wrong. We are like a family around the dinner table, someone wants to have pasta for dinner and the other one wants to have rice. Every national team I have coached has those problems. I remember coaching Japan and the Panasonic players hated the Suntory players. We had to sort it out. That always happens.”
There are seven Saracens players in England’s 34-man squad with an eighth, Billy Vunipola, set to miss the tournament after breaking an arm against Racing 92 on Sunday. It is the big No 8’s fourth fractured forearm in two years, raising fears over his longevity in the sport, but Jones cited the case of the Australian rugby league legend Mal Meninga who suffered a similar chain of misfortune and still enjoyed a long, fruitful career.
He is also adamant, having named eight uncapped players in his squad, that the future is potentially bright for English rugby, even in the short-term absence of Vunipola, Jack Nowell (who needs an ankle operation), Henry Slade and others. The fresh faces include the 21-year-old Wasps fly-half Jacob Umaga, nephew of the former All Black captain Tana Umaga, and the Northampton trio of George Furbank, Alex Moon and Fraser Dingwall, along with the Saracens back-rower Ben Earl, the Bath tighthead Will Stuart and Gloucester’s Ollie Thorley.
There is no place, however, for Leicester’s Dan Cole or Saracens’ Ben Spencer, both of whom featured in the World Cup final, with their erstwhile squad-mates Piers Francis and Ruaridh McConnochie also not involved. Nor is there any room, even in Vunipola’s absence, for in-form ball-carrying No 8s such as Sam Simmonds of Exeter or Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt, with Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlum and Earl seemingly competing for the No 8 jersey in Paris.
The bulk of the World Cup squad, fitness permitting, is otherwise still involved and Jones is challenging them to raise their game further.
“My aim is to make England the greatest rugby team the world has ever seen,” insisted Jones, who is only contracted to coach them for another two years. “That’s my mindset. Our job is to make sure people remember the good things about English rugby, Why can’t we go out and play fantastic football against France?”
The Rugby Football Union has confirmed, meanwhile, that the skills coach Steve Borthwick will be leaving Twickenham at the end of the season to join Leicester, with the former Australian rugby league international Jason Ryles joining England’s coaching staff full-time in November. In the shorter-term Jones is more preoccupied with how the game will be officiated at the Six Nations, suggesting the sport needed to find ways of facilitating quicker ball at the ruck.
“We’ve got no idea how the referees are going to referee the games, which is a concern for me,” said Jones. “I felt the World Cup didn’t allow teams to play with enough quick ball. If we keep going down that track we’re going to have a slow, attritional game. It’s going to be a power game. It’s one of my biggest concerns for the game at the moment.”