Jake White: 'England are favourites for the World Cup. I'll tell you why'
When Marcus Smith ran and hoofed the ball into the pulsating Twickenham stands, they had the All Blacks on the ropes. Beauden Barrett was in the bin, TJ Perenara had limped off and there was a complete momentum switch.
Understandably in the aftermath, there was a lot of talk about what great teams would have done.
It made me wonder what to read into that decision and the conclusion I’ve come up with is that England are favourites for the World Cup. Now I’ll tell you why.
When England lost to Argentina Eddie Jones made a statement in which he said he’d made a mistake because he’d been focusing too much on the World Cup but I wouldn’t read too much into that. I think Eddie is quietly confident because he’ll be the most experienced Test coach in France. This will be his fifth World Cup and he’s appeared in two Finals. Look at the stats. He’s had more Test matches than any other coach of a leading nation.
Don’t forget the other advantages he has. He’s also worked with the same group for eight years so he should know by now every single player and what their relative strengths and weaknesses are. They have the biggest player base, all of them earn their crust in the same time zone and are a few hours away if he needs to send for help. Eddie has seen about 180 players in camp. There will be no surprise picks.
He also doesn’t have to deal with complexities of his players leaving to play their rugby in other countries.
There’s no doubt they have the easiest draw, too, with only Argentina in with a shout of beating them. They have a relatively easy pathway to the semi-finals. So the reality is he’ll have two tough games to lift the World Cup. The stars have aligned for him, and you could say coming back from 25-6 down pointed to Eddie wearing his lucky pants for the evening.
Look at England’s support. The World Cup is a Eurostar or a quick flight from home, so the fans will be piling in their thousands. I remember in 2007, when we played Argentina in the semi-finals. I looked at the price of Eurostar tickets before the game and the price of the tickets had doubled afterwards because they realised just how many English fans would travel over the tunnel for the Final. The support they’ll get will be immense.
After their draw with New Zealand and game against the Springboks on Saturday, England have a Six Nations campaign where they can test themselves against France and Ireland, the Northern Hemisphere’s top sides. All the boxes will be ticked.
I would just say, the World Cup draw is flawed by being made so early. Everyone would want to see New Zealand, Ireland, France and South Africa in separate pools but the World Cup draw is very kind to England. All the other top sides will have to slug it out so England will meet depleted sides, because those early games will be so attritional. In the quarter-finals, they’ll likely meet Wales or Australia – which they should sail through, and then they will likely face the hosts or Andy Farrell’s men.
Some of their detractors say they lack consistency – and it’s true, they’ve fluffed their lines on countless occasions – but England will always be able to mount a challenge – they’ve made it to four finals.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes. My Springboks beat them 36-0 in the Pool stages of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, but they regrouped, stormed Marseille against the Wallabies, and did a number on the French in the semi-finals before coming within a Mark Cueto shoelace of lifting the Cup.
Eddie saying he knew he could win it on Saturday night takes some chutzpah but he’s saying that’s how quickly your fortunes can change in rugby. Now if you believe his quotes, you get the feeling he’s in a good place. He knows he’s not going to get the chop this close to the World Cup and and he’s told the public he’s leaving, so the pressure is off. Somehow, he hasn’t been taken down by criticism from ex-players like Mike Brown or Danny Care, or the media questioning his methods; he’s lasted the course. In his eyes, he’s won. Once he reaches the World Cup he will have overseen the most England tests, overtaking Clive Woodward.
Frankly, I was amazed he said he thought England could still get something out of the game 25-6 down with nine minutes to go. They were dead and buried. Most sides don’t come back from that. I think that was his way of making sure he could get one over on the detractors who would have nailed him had they lost.
People ask me, is Eddie a better coach than when he worked with me in 2007? I think in some ways Eddie has regressed. The one area he’s always struggled with is retaining coaches and you can read between the lines why that is. In Japan he got rid of about 15 coaches, in Australia he got rid of people who don’t speak to him anymore, that well documented. Then with England you have coaches like John Mitchell, Paul Gustard, Jason Ryles, Simon Amor, Scott Wisemantel, Anthony Siebold…I could go on, leaving early. Why would you do that? It’s essentially giving your lotto ticket away and I can tell you not many give it away when they think they have the winning number. I think that happens with pressure and he would understand that.
I know a lot of people are classing France as favourites but the expectancy to succeed on their own turf will be crushing and Eddie’s record is decent against them. He’s won five out of eight Tests and beat Les Bleus in Paris in 2016 for the Grand Slam.
The pressure is off South Africa in a way on Saturday and it’s on England. They haven’t won at Twickenham for eight years and they’re missing key players like Cheslin Kolbe, Vincent Koch and Jasper Wiese, before you count Pollard, de Jager and Am. Eddie has a good hand. This is as easy as it will get for Eddie against the Boks because they should be fully loaded in France next year.
In the Boks camp, despite a really pleasing second half in Genoa, it’s not all been rosy. Fans and players have had enough of the disruption caused by Rassie’s social media posts. Rassie is trying to downplay it, but real rugby men are saying, ‘you’re being a fool to yourself’ because you’re starting to believe your press. I saw John Smit speaking out. He is hugely respected in South Africa and is speaking as a captain. He’s saying something that the players in camp can’t say, ‘you’re not making it easy for us’.
If I was the captain of that side, I wouldn’t want to be running out and trying to defend the actions of my director of rugby. They’re decent, respectful boys in that squad. Remember, a guy like Smit came out of Kamp Staaldraad so he speaks with experience of how difficult it is to try and win people over when the reputation of your national team is so low. It’s an unwelcome distraction. I’m sure Rassie will look back with regret on how he acted.
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