Wales have been warned to expect a fast and furious welcome from England at Twickenham on Saturday in a game the home team are billing as a knockout eliminator.
With Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes back, Eddie Jones’s side are determined to up the tempo and improve their chances of claiming this year’s Six Nations title. According to Jones’s assistant Martin Gleeson, the former Great Britain rugby league international who is now England’s attack coach, there is a realization among the players that, as at a World Cup, they must now win their final three games to hoist the trophy.
“It’s a massive game for us,” Gleeson said. “It’s the first time crowds have been back for a Six Nations game for a couple of years and we’re treating it like a quarter-final. If we don’t get the result on Saturday, we’re out.”
Gleeson will be urging his side to take the game to Wales from the outset, having rated their training session on Tuesday as the best he has seen since he took the job last August. “We want to take it to them as quickly and early in the game as possible,” he said.
“We don’t want to be playing in our shell. We want to play the brand of rugby we want straight from the kick off. We need to have some line speed in defense and hit hard. When we’ve got the ball there’s a few opportunities we can see. We want to play with intent and go after teams.”
This go-faster mission statement would appear perfectly suited to a player like Tuilagi, set to feature for the first time since damaging a hamstring against South Africa in the autumn. The statistician Russ Petty has even dug into the archives and found that England have not lost at Twickenham with Tuilagi in their matchday squad since November 2012.
“Manu can just take the ball, make meters and get us quick ruck ball by himself. Not everyone can do that,” Gleeson said. “That’s why Manu is the player he is. He’s a guy who can add another dimension to your attack. You don’t always have to create overlaps or gaps in defences; he can punch holes on his own. His acceleration and the power with that is phenomenal. He’ll be good to have in the mix.”
The winds of change, though, continue to blow, with two experienced Joes – Marchant and Launchbury – released from the squad last night. In recent days, too, two members of England’s matchday squad from their 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final win over New Zealand have signaled their retirements, with George Kruis set to join Mark Wilson in stepping away from the game at the age of 32.
Both Kruis and Wilson were popular squad men and highly valuable players, with 68 caps for England between them. The former is quitting to devote more time to his burgeoning business career while injury has finally caught up with the latter but, in their different ways, both underline the fierce dedication and sacrifice required to stay at the top of the professional game.
It also shows just how swiftly the picture can change from a team-building perspective. There had been talk of Kruis returning to the Premiership with a view to chasing a place in next year’s World Cup in France. Instead Jones and his assistants will have to hope their forward options remain deep enough for it not to matter unduly if they lose any more big men between now and the autumn of 2023.
Equally important, though, is to bed in some lasting combinations in key areas rather than simply adding random individuals to the mix here and there. Ben Youngs is set to become England’s most capped player in history this weekend but will be 34 by the time next year’s World Cup kicks off. England’s other two scrum-halves, Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke, have barely started their Test careers and no team in history has won the Webb Ellis Cup with a relative rookie in the No 9 jersey.
Tuilagi and Henry Slade, however, are already a proven midfield double act and, with Owen Farrell still sidelined by injury, the big center has been seeking to establish a good understanding with Marcus Smith. The pair roomed together during England’s training camp in Jersey and Tuilagi has been trying to put the squad’s younger players at ease.
“You don’t want them to feel pressure,” the 30-year-old said. “We were just relaxing with nice tea and a couple of biscuits, nice shortbread. That’s the important thing… to connect and get to know each other.”