LONDON (AFP) – England coach Eddie Jones labelling Scotland “red-hot favourites” for the old rivals’ Six Nations opener at Murrayfield today may be a familiar ploy, but he might have a point.
The 62-year-old Australian is well known for trying to unsettle opponents with some choice words to the media.
But with England beating South Africa, the team that defeated Jones’ men in the 2019 World Cup final, last time out, why bother with pre-match mind games?
Injuries, however, have deprived Jones of first-choice captain Owen Farrell and back-up skipper Courtney Lawes, as well as Jonny May, Anthony Watson, Manu Tuilagi, Sam Underhill, Jonny Hill, and the Vunipola brothers for the latest edition of rugby’s oldest international fixture.
England are now set to face a rather more settled Scotland, whom Jones thinks are “probably two years ahead of us in terms of their development”.
The Scots will also be playing in front of a 67,000 capacity crowd at their Edinburgh headquarters after a 2021 Six Nations staged behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This weekend’s forecast wet and windy weather have often helped cause the Edinburgh downfall of many a more mature England side.
“It’s the first time I’ve had the experience of going up there when Scotland have been red-hot favourites,” said Jones.
“They’re expected to win…they’ve got to cope with that.”
No wonder Scotland counterpart Gregor Townsend, whose improving side beat England last year – the Scots’ first Calcutta Cup triumph at Twickenham since 1983, said, “Every coach does this little song and dance going into a game trying to convince the media they’re underdogs”.
With Farrell and Lawes ruled out, Jones has appointed Tom Curry as captain with the 23-year-old flanker England’s youngest skipper since Will Carling in 1988.
And in another piece of pre-game theatre, Jones promptly said Curry reminded him of New Zealand great Richie McCaw in that he could “lead by example.”
That Jones does things differently to many rugby coaches is because the son of a Japanese-American mother and an Australian father, was very different to the many privately educated rugby players he encountered during his early days in the Sydney club game.
Jones was Australia’s coach when they lost the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney to a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired England but, after being sacked two years later, admitted he had “stayed too long” with the Wallabies.
Yet Jones, often portrayed as an obsessive workaholic with a high turnover of backroom staff, will have had some eight years as England coach by the time his current deal expires after the 2023 World Cup in France.
He may, however, be mellowing judging by his avuncular concern for 22-year-old rising star Marcus Smith, whose talent Jones first spotted when the fly-half was a teenager.
Now he has preferred Smith to 77-cap veteran George Ford in his starting XV for today, with Jones saying, “Every young 10 starts off at this stage – there are doubts about his experience to handle the pressure of the situation.
“At some stage they play a game bigger than they’ve ever played. I’ve got no doubt Marcus has got the desire and the drive to be one of the best 10s in the world. There’s no reason why he can’t handle Saturday.”
It was Smith’s last-ditch penalty that sealed a one-point win over the Springboks in November, with Jones saying, “He was able to get use from our 22 to their 22 to kick the goal to win the game.
“He made calculated decisions on when to move the ball and when to kick the ball and he’ll do that again on Saturday.”
And then, one last jibe.
“I’m sure they are going to come at him. Scotland brag about being able to get into the psychology of England, don’t they? So let’s see.”