elcome to the Autumn Nations Cup, a tournament conceived in haste as an antidote to the financial impact of Covid-19 and about to be delivered by Amazon Prime, the new kids on rugby’s block. The broadcaster will want its coverage to make an early impact despite the unfortunate cancellation of France v Fiji; so much the better if the TV audience figures are swelled by American golf viewers who see the word “Georgia” and think they are tuning into the Masters from Augusta, GA.
In that event this might be the moment to clarify a few things for rugby newcomers unsure what to expect from Twickenham. First of all, sadly, there is a greater chance of Donald Trump claiming the Masters Green Jacket than the Lelos emerging victorious. The team wearing white, furthermore, will not be England, as the host nation will be clad in their new blue Umbro change strip. With a backdrop of empty stands and forecast rain, a televisual feast for the eyes is also not guaranteed.
It neatly sums up professional rugby’s inherent contradiction: is it still a game primarily for the players, as was traditionally the case, or should it, with the sport in economic turmoil, be thinking more about the paying public? It is a shame, in that regard, that the team who lit up the last World Cup, Japan, had to withdraw from this tournament. It would have helped remind everyone that, when played with genuine ambition, watching rugby can be truly electrifying.
As Eddie Jones keeps emphasising, however, those who wish England to be dazzlingly entertaining every week are overlooking Test rugby’s fundamentals. Nobody remembers flamboyant losers for very long at this level, with consistent success largely built on unglamorous hard work and relentlessly-applied pressure.
Nor is it Jones’s fault that box-kicking, line speed and set-piece penalties have become the game’s holy trinity. Within those parameters, even so, it is still possible to be innovative. If there was a criticism of England in Rome as they clinched the Six Nations title it was that kicking the ball 44 times felt counterproductive for a team who look so formidable when they carry hard and straight and seek to play with pace.
The weather may again mean putting boot to ball is the most obvious option, but, either way, England’s winger Jonny May believes a spectacular highlights reel should not be the holy grail. “The more games I play the more I realise rugby is actually not about the big plays, the line-breaks, the open field running and the tries. It’s really not. That’s what everybody wants to talk about but the game is about being brilliant at the basics consistently. If we get those right, the good things happen off the back of that.”
Team to face Georgia at Twickenham, 14 November
Elliot Daly (Saracens); Jonathan Joseph (Bath), Ollie Lawrence (Worcester), Henry Slade (Exeter), Jonny May (Gloucester); Owen Farrell (c) (Saracens); Ben Youngs (Leicester); Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jamie George (Saracens), Will Stuart (Bath), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Jack Willis (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens)
Replacements: Tom Dunn (Bath), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol), Ben Earl (Bristol), Tom Curry (Sale), Dan Robson (Wasps), Max Malins (Bristol), Joe Marchant (Harlequins)
True, but even May, such a potentially lethal threat with 29 tries in 57 Tests, has not registered a try in his past four England appearances since the away loss to France last February. While he remains sanguine about the situation – “Tries are like buses, they’ll come and go” – it underlines the fact this England team still has another gear in it. Smart tactical kicking is important but so is first-phase gainline penetration and the occasional dash of the unexpected.
This is a big game, accordingly, for Ellis Genge, Billy Vunipola and Ollie Lawrence, all forceful carriers with a point or two to prove. It could also be that Jones has next week’s opponents Ireland partly in mind, with the selection of Maro Itoje as an additional lineout option mimicking the choice of Courtney Lawes in the No 6 jersey in the convincing 24-12 win over the Irish at Twickenham in February. Jonathan Joseph was also on the wing in that same fixture and will be expected here to help shepherd Lawrence through his first Test start. If the 21-year-old Worcester centre enjoys a productive autumn he has the ability to be in or around the England squad for some time.
The same is true of Jack Willis at openside, and Max Malins and Ben Earl on the bench. It is good to see all of them involved: now would be a perfect time for England to put their best feet forward and show the infectious enthusiasm of men who are grateful, in a pandemic, to be playing at all. Display even a little more positive intent, and they will find they gain a load of new friends very quickly.
If all else fails there is a chance to impress absent supporters musically, with player requests incorporated into the matchday playlist. From Adele to Motörhead, and Blur to Marvin Gaye, there is broad range of tastes although, as yet, Farrell’s captaincy – “No one’s asked me for some reason” – does not to extend to juke box jurisdiction.
May, typically, has plumped for The Greatest Showman and the whole game will benefit if he and his team cause hearts to sing between now and the first weekend in December. If, alternatively, failed Covid tests and disinterest hold sway it will be a massive opportunity wasted. Good luck, in any event, to Georgia whose coach, Levan Maisashvili, is warning against drawing instant conclusions – “It’s not an excuse, but we need time” – from this weekend’s outcome. Fair enough but if England post a score more usually seen on golf leaderboards, it will not assist either nation.