In Focus: England

If there is one thing Eddie Jones knows how to navigate, it is a Rugby World Cup.

If there is one thing Eddie Jones knows how to navigate, it is a Rugby World Cup.

Just ask Japan, who four years ago shocked the world thanks to Jones’ ‘Beat the Boks’ masterplan.

If you’re still not sure, ask South Africa who Jones helped guide to their second crown back in 2007.

That should remove all doubt, but you could also try speaking to an Australian after Jones in 2003 led them past the All Blacks and to within a whisker of a shock extra-time win over a vastly superior England side.

The Red Rose has bloomed a few times already under Jones’ stewardship, most notably with a Grand Slam in 2016 and back to back Guinness Six Nations crowns.

But the time is now, Jones wants to win it all as the top dog for the first time and England are without a doubt one of the main contenders.

They have, on paper, the trickiest Pool to navigate so making the knockout stages is job No.1 – they failed to do so four years ago on home soil after all.

But for Jones, that will not be anywhere near good enough. His eyes are on the prize, and England expects.

We will come onto the Saracens spine in due course, but England’s reliance on Ben Youngs is worth exploring first and foremost.

The Leicester man is Jones’ No.9 and has been throughout his reign. The British & Irish Lion therefore will have to be firing on all cylinders in Japan.

Not only has Jones opted for only two scrum-halves in his squad of 31, but he has also rotated the back-up to Youngs with little success.

Danny Care’s experience has been jettisoned, Ben Spencer’s European pedigree overlooked and Dan Robson – the back-up for much of the 2019 Championship before illness struck – also left at home.

Willi Heinz is the man given the nod, a remarkable rise for the 32-year-old who before this summer had never pulled on the Red Rose in a Test match.

The Gloucester halfback is undoubtedly a class act whose communication skills more than anything else appear to have won over Jones, but he remains unproven at this level.

So Jones better hope that Youngs stays fit – shoulder surgery finished off last season prematurely and has left him playing catch-up this summer – and in form.

You could pick any of the Saracens scrum here – they undoubtedly hold the key to England’s chances.

Jamie George at hooker is approaching world class and, with Dylan Hartley left behind, is far and away England’s best No.2.

Mako Vunipola needs an uninterrupted run of games and then England could really start to hum, while Maro Itoje and George Kruis will be the starting second row and a match for any engine room in world rugby.

But it is in the back row that Billy Vunipola holds the key.

The only man to start all four warm-up games for England, the only recognised No.8 in the squad, a European champion once again with Sarries and the top ball carrier in this year’s Guinness Six Nations – according to stats powered by AWS.

England are a different side when Billy is at his bullying best, a game plan built on gainline dominance needs heavy hitters and few can live with Vunipola at full charge.

England’s captain, England’s goalkicker – but will he be England’s fly-half?

What is beyond question is that Farrell will start, but it remains to be seen if he is wearing No.10 or No.12.

He wore both this summer in his two warm-up starts and England were at their best when he renewed that playmaking pairing with George Ford against Ireland.

But wherever he plays, Farrell remains the fulcrum of this side.

A leader in word and in deed, his tackling technique will come under scrutiny this autumn but defence coach John Mitchell insists changes have been made and he will not fall foul.

But what is without doubt is that Farrell will continue to put his body on the line for his nation, dust himself down and still kick the goals that count.

Jones has often talked of returning England to their traditional set-piece strength.

And that means that Steve Borthwick, Jones’ lieutenant here in Miyazaki four years ago as they plotted South Africa’s downfall, has a key role to play.

England’s scrum was the best in the 2019 Championship, their lineout was the second best and will only improve with Itoje and Kruis at the top of their game again.

Meanwhile in defence, Mitchell’s maniacal vision bore real fruit as England produced dominant hit after dominant hit to rock teams consistently behind the gainline.

In attack, they scored tries for fun. 24 in all across their five Championship clashes and then 15 more in their four warm-up games.

Manu Tuilagi’s return in the last year has been perfectly timed, his midfield strength has helped unlock defences while the rise of Joe Cokanasiga brings more bludgeon out wide to go with Jonny May’s rapier instincts.

Attack coach Scott Wisemantel is an out of the box thinker and England have a box of tricks to rival the best in the business. But they can be blunted, just ask Wales who in Cardiff this year allowed England only one try across 160 minutes.

That is where Jones comes in, the head coach is trying to build adaptability and problem solving on the hoof to his recruits.

It is still a work in progress, just watch the Calcutta Cup back for proof. England kicked the ball more than any other side in world rugby earlier this year, but in Japan where the action is expected to be fast paced and ground firm, albeit humid, they will have to find the right balance.

Jones and his team have left no stone unturned in preparation for Japan.

Two training camps in Treviso, where the humidity most resembles conditions out East, are proof of that.

Survival camps with the RAF have brought the squad closer, while on the training pitch Jones and his team have continued to turn up the heat.

Miyazaki in the south is still blisteringly hot and humid at this time of year – and with prying eyes elsewhere England are preparing for every eventuality.

Training with 14 and sometimes 13 men is one thing, using deliberately soapy balls is another entirely.

Some rest and relaxation before the pressure cooker turns on has also been in order.

The players have been surfing, sampling the local cuisine and playing golf at their five-star resort.

But the heat is most definitely on.

England rugby fans will have spent hours already poring over their wall charts to plot the Red Rose’s potential path to the final but first things first, England need to handle business in the pool stages.

Tonga – who beat France at this stage in 2011 but took a hammering from the All Blacks earlier this month – are up first in Sapporo.

Navigate that potential Pacific upset, and England face their only tricky turnaround of the tournament just four days later, against the USA in Kobe.

Then it is all eyes on the capital for the final fortnight of the first phase.

Argentina, semi-finalists four years ago, are first up in Chofu as England will look to take control of Pool C.

Then it is the small matter of Le Crunch, in Yokohama a week later.

England v Tonga – Sunday September 22, Sapporo, 11:15AM KO (all times GMT)

England v USA – Thursday September 26, Kobe, 11:45AM KO

England v Argentina – Saturday October 5, Tokyo, 9:00AM KO

England v France – Saturday October 12, Yokohama, 09:15AM