England will go full attack on one of the most inexperienced sides in French rugby history on Sunday in an attempt to secure the Autumn Nations Cup and continue to ease the wounds left by their Rugby World Cup final defeat.
The recently crowned Six Nations champions will go into the finale of the one-off tournament as overwhelming favourites for a second successive tournament success due to the fact that French head coach Fabien Galthie is unable to select 25 front-line players due to a combination of a restrictive selection agreement and long-term injuries.
With players only eligible for a maximum of three appearances this autumn due to anger from the Top 14 clubs at the increased number of fixtures, Galthie’s decision to prioritise the Six Nations has come back to haunt him. The bulk of his first team played the tune-up victory over Wales before seeing off Ireland in the final match of the tournament in October, meaning they were restricted to one more appearance throughout the four-game Autumn Nations Cup programme. With Galthie choosing that game to be the group clash against Scotland, he knew that his hands would be tied for a potential final appearance versus England, which leaves the odds stacked heavily in the home side’s failure.
That hasn’t been the message within the England camp though. Having suffered defeat on their trip to Paris earlier this year, Eddie Jones’ side know all too well what France can do on their day, and under Glathie and Shaun Edwards they are certainly enjoying their day more often than they were used to during a decade in the doldrums.
The final, which comes five weeks since England secured the Six Nations title in Rome, offers a rare chance to practice something that doesn’t come around all that often in international rugby: the chance to deliver when the pressure is at its highest. When that happened in the week leading up to the 2019 World Cup final, England got it massively wrong and allowed South Africa to dominate them from start to finish, leaving Jones and his side with a point to prove.
“What we’ve noticed is that, in retrospect, we probably didn’t attack the week like we normally do,” Jones said. “In the week of the World Cup final, we were probably more content about getting through the week. This week, we’ve had a real focus on attacking the game and where we can improve.
“It’s been a great learning week for us and we will continue that in the next two days. It’s been a bit of a mind-set change.”
The problem for England 13 months ago came in that they booked their place in the final via one of their most complete performances in World Cup history. The semi-final victory over the All Blacks not only sent the three-time world champions out of the reckoning to end their eight-year grip on the global game, but it also cemented their pre-game tag as tournament favourites over a Springboks side that had to dig deep to see off Wales.
Although they knew it wouldn’t be easy, subconsciously England fell into a trap of security. The fact that they had delivered such an impressive display may well have led a few to believe they would do so again, simply by living up to their tag of favourites.
“There’s two teams in a final, there’s always the favourites and always the underdogs,” Jones added. “The favourites usually come into the final on good form. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, sometimes you think: well, we’ve just got to continue.
“In sport, there’s no such thing as continuing, you are either going up or you go down. When you are the underdog, it’s the (opposite), you know you’ve got to improve, you know you’ve got to keep working hard.
“You can miss out a week’s preparation - look, I don’t know whether that’s right for our World Cup final, but that’s one of the thing’s we’re hypothesising. We’ve had a big attempt this week to attack the week, not sit back, to see where we can improve our game and continue getting better.”
But of course no number of Six Nations titles, or in this instance Autumn Nations Cups, will ever replace the despair of losing a World Cup final. Jones should know, having been on the end of England’s 2003 triumph as his Australia side came up agonisingly short in the first final to go to extra-time, and he knows that his England players feel the exact same pain.
“You never put it to bed,” Jones said. “The result is what it is; we weren’t good enough in the World Cup final.
“Even if you win the next World Cup, it never puts to bed that final, it stays with you. That’s what drives you to keep on wanting to get better. In any sport, you’re in a cycle of success and failure and you know that as soon as you’ve had success, failure’s sitting next to you. When you are in a failure period, you’ve got success sitting next to you.”
With the 2021 Six Nations right around the corner though, Jones will hope that success helps to breed success when it matters most. Although the Autumn Nations Cup has offered a path back towards normality for international rugby, both England and France are building towards the 2023 World Cup. Regardless of how various tournaments play out over the course of the next three years, it will all come down to those six weeks when the real successes are rewarded the most.
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