Before we talk about Ireland, let’s touch on the French game. As a spectacle, France scoring early on was the best thing that could have happened to England. Why? Because it forced them outside their comfort zone. Against Scotland, Italy and even Wales, they didn’t have that attacking mindset and regressed to their default button, which is physicality. Playing France gave them a jolt and I hope we see more of the same ambition this weekend.
As a player, I faced Ireland seven times, winning five and losing on two occasions. Whatever their form, they are a side you always treat with respect.
It was a shock in the week to see CJ (Stander) is hanging up his boots. The go-forward he gets in collisions is quite incredible. I read his farewell letter and one sentence struck a chord with me, ‘as a player you just know when it’s time’. I felt like that at Quins. Sometimes you know it’s the right time to do something different.
Beyond the summer, it will be interesting who replaces him. They have some good players like Jack Conan, who is starting at No8, and young players like Caelan Doris and Gavin Coombes coming through, but he’s a tough act to follow.
When I look at that squad, from a neutral’s perspective, I can’t quite believe John Cooney hasn’t been involved. We played against him in the Champions Cup and the skill and speed of the guy is something else. I know they’re going with Conor Murray and Jamison Gibson-Park but, for me, Cooney could give them that extra attacking dimension.
The big decisions, of course, come down to their coach Andy Farrell. I know Andy well, he’s a man with real presence. What he’s achieved in both codes, especially rugby league, gives him instant respect but what you don’t see are the little touches behind the scenes.
Away from the training paddock, not that many people will know Andy has a great voice, and so has Owen (Farrell). They’ve been known to belt out a few Northern tunes in their time.
When I became England captain back in 2012, we didn’t know each other but after the first huddle he said, ‘It’s all easy from now on, just play your game and do what you always do’. Before that, I was fretting thinking, ‘Shall I do this, shall I do that?’ but his words put me at ease. We never had long sit-down chats but he was always there, passing on bits of advice.
He seemed to strike the right balance between pushing you to your physical limits, and saying, ‘Come on, let’s have a bit of a laugh and wind down’. Away from the training paddock, not that many people will know he has a great voice, and so has Owen (Farrell). They’ve been known to belt out a few Northern tunes in their time.
Speaking of Owen, he has come in for some stick lately, which is harsh because I don’t think he has played badly. Going back to that Wales game, I respect how he held his tongue. From a young age, you’re taught to respect the ref and not challenge him but if you know, and believe, that he has made the wrong decision, it’s difficult to put your point across without sounding challenging, disruptive or making our game sound like football. Owen just had to park it and carry on.
The England captaincy forces you to change as a person. When I watch interviews back when I was captain, I often think how I’d answer them differently today and Owen will be the same. What I would say is that over time Owen has improved how he communicates with people. When he came in, he was quite confrontational but he’s come to realise every player is different and will be motivated by different approaches.
Being skipper is not easy because after one poor result the knives start coming out for you. You have to protect yourself and you soon learn what matters and what doesn’t. What people don’t realise is that it does have an impact on your friends and family. It’s at times like these that other leaders within the squad need to put their arm around you and show loyalty.
I found the toughest aspect of captaincy was having to be on it every single day. That’s not easy if you’ve had a duff game at the weekend but you still have to come in on Monday morning and get the boys going again. You are the voice. Listen, the highest compliment I can pay Owen is that if he’s not in training, the intensity drops to about 60 per cent. He’s that vocal and driven every single day.
When it comes to the other major personality in the squad; Eddie Jones, all I’ll say about him is that he’s the best man-manager I’ve ever worked with. He just understands how to get the best out of people. He’s always been honest, mind you. I remember he dropped me for the second Test against South Africa in 2018. He sat me down and said, ‘Listen, you’re not playing as well as you normally do’. He didn’t sugarcoat it, but in my heart, I knew he was right, so I couldn’t argue with him.
I remember my first training camp in Portugal as if it were yesterday. I’d been told my first roomie was Simon Shaw and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible’, so I bounded up to his hotel room and he answered his door in his pants.
He came under fire before France for not making changes but when you talk about the Owens, Maros and Billys of this world, these are not fringe guys, they are the core of that side. Every single one of them has credit in the bank. Eddie always said, ‘If you play badly, I’ll give you another chance, but if you play poorly on a couple of occasions that’s a different story and tough decisions have to be made.’ He dropped me, dropped his England captain (Dylan Hartley) for the last World Cup, while Hask (James Haskell) and Browny (Mike Brown) didn’t make it. He’s not afraid to make the big decisions but he’ll do it when he thinks the time is right, not when others are telling him to.
There will always be a clamour to get new boys in the squad. I’ve been there. The gap between my first cap and second cap was about two and a half years. I was in and out of training and you know people are talking about you. You begin to think, ‘Maybe I should be in’, but nowadays, when I speak to Dommers (Alex Dombrandt) and Marcus (Smith), I say selection is like a jigsaw puzzle. Every player is a little piece and at a certain point in time, your piece will fit that puzzle.
Selection isn’t down to what the papers say, the fans, or your parents, it’s down to one man, and that’s Eddie. There’s that old adage, ‘It’s hard getting in the room, but even harder staying there’ and it’s true when it comes to England.
You can’t blame players for their desperation to be a part of the national squad because the England environment is so special. You’re with the best players in the land, the training pitches are immaculate, all the lifts are at top height, the throws are spot on and every single whim is catered for. It’s amazing.
I remember my first training camp in Portugal as if it were yesterday. I’d been told my first roomie was Simon Shaw and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible’, so I bounded up to his hotel room and he answered his door in his pants. He looked down at me and said, ‘Your room is over there’, so I just scurried across the corridor and did what I was told. It’s a magical time.
Tom’s a character off the pitch. He’s funny and a real energiser. In the current bubble England are in, you need personalities like him and Gengey to keep spirits up.
One youngster who has seriously impressed this tournament is Tom Curry. For me, he’s England’s best player right now. He’s confrontational, carries hard but the bottom line is he’s one tough kid. Even back in his teens, he didn’t take a backward step. We were having a mauling session and things spilt over so Joe (Marler) went at him and instead of shying away, he came right back at him and it showed he wasn’t cowed by anyone.
I played with him a few times and what struck me was his intensity, hunger to learn and desire to improve. He’s the sort of player you build a squad round. Fortunately, Tom’s also a character off the pitch. He’s funny and a real energiser. In the current bubble they’re in, you need personalities like him and Gengey (Ellis Genge) to keep spirits up.
If he has a big game tomorrow, I expect he’ll book his place in the Lions squad alongside Billy and Sam Underhill. He’ll be in the mix with Josh Navidi, CJ, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau and Hamish Watson, who will all be vying for places. One name I’d also like to throw in Sam Simmonds. I know Eddie doesn’t fancy him, but why can’t he go? If Warren Gatland does, then he could surprise a few people. He’s having an incredible season.
I’ll be watching the game over breakfast in Las Vegas, and like any England fan, I cannot wait.
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