A youthful French side have been warned to brace themselves for a crash course in Test-match reality on Sunday when England head to Paris for the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations Championship. Eddie Jones is clearly tiring of reading about the hosts’ fresh-faced potential and says England will ruthlessly target anyone who is not up to it.
Despite the untimely injury withdrawal of the highly rated hooker Camille Chat, France are still hoping to make a lively start to the tournament with a number of newcomers set to feature at the Stade de France. Jones, however, insists there are no shortcuts at international level and has promised France’s new caps a baptism of fire.
“It is going to test those young players because they will have never played against a brutal physicality and intensity that we are going to play with on Sunday,” Jones said. “It is not domestic rugby. That is why you call it Test rugby.
“At stages they are going to be looking at each other wanting to know where the answers are going to come from. There are not too many of them who have experienced that before.”
Does that mean England will be specifically focusing on one or two callow France debutants? “We are always looking for a weak link, we want to target them and make their life uncomfortable. Test-match rugby requires experience and France have decided to go with youth. They might be wrong, they might be right.”
Even France’s new captain, Charles Ollivon, has never started a Six Nations match while Jones is also keen to examine the credentials of the recent graduates from France’s Under-20 World Cup-winning sides and give them a less than pleasant evening in Paris. “I’ve never seen too much romance there. It’s normally cold, wet, damp … I think it’s probably one of the most unromantic rugby stadiums in the world. Finding the weak links in their team and trying to get an advantage … that’s what the game is all about.”
As ever with Jones there is a sub-text: he does not want this week’s buildup in the Algarve to be dominated by the Saracens fallout or references to England’s set-piece frailties against South Africa in the World Cup final last November. It clearly suits him rather better to focus on France picking players barely out of the creche than to debate whether some of his own team will find it easy to go again in the Six Nations having expended so much mental and physical energy in Japan.
He is also wrestling with the uncomfortable fact that losing World Cup finalists – most recently England, France and Australia – have a tendency to dip thereafter. “It’s interesting. You look at all the World Cup finalists and they’ve generally deteriorated over the next four years and finished the next World Cup in the quarter-finals.”
Jones thinks a mixture of lofty expectations, extra-motivated opponents and players becoming too comfortable is usually to blame. “It is difficult to stay at the top. You have to have this relentless desire and curiosity to find out what you can do better. And you have to have competition for places to keep players on their toes. Bob Dwyer [the former Wallaby coach] always used to have a great saying: if you have a good long-term strategy, then you’ll have success in the short term. We want this team to be the greatest team ever – which is a longer-term project – but, if we’re doing the right things now, we’ll find success now.”
Such messages have certainly been absorbed by players such as Ellis Genge, who had limited game-time at the World Cup. “No one has ever been picked off the back of sulking,” said the Leicester loosehead. “Eddie is a fair man. If he thinks you should play, you will play. He doesn’t hold grudges. You have got to have some tough conversations with him if you don’t agree but he doesn’t work in the shadows.”
Genge and Jones have also been impressed by several of the younger players in England’s squad, although how many of them will kick off the championship remains to be seen. Jones namechecked Bath’s Will Stuart and Worcester’s Ted Hill, among others, while Genge reckons the next generation are a different breed altogether.
“Youngsters coming into the international setup are very different now. They have a voice and everyone knows who they are. When I came in they thought I was the kitman or something.”