England have been challenged by Eddie Jones not to burst out of the gates against Tonga next weekend but to time their run in the Rugby World Cup like a thoroughbred horse racing for the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The head coach will select his side for the opening match against Tonga at the end of the week, having suggested last year that he will go as full strength as possible in an effort to send out a statement against the Pacific Islanders.
But on Saturday the Australian suggested that may not be his ploy when it comes to naming the team on Friday, having taken inspiration from Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola to try and build England’s campaign up from start to finish in order to time their run to World Cup glory.
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“The World Cup is not about [making an early statement],” Jones said. “The World Cup is like the Cheltenham Gold Cup. You have to be in front at the right time and we intend to be in front when the whips are cracking.
“It’s exacerbated by the fact that the game has become physically more rigorous and the issues involved with the game means that players will likely be ruled out of games. We have gone to another level in terms of adaptability.
“You never have your best team any more. I was reading a book the other day about Pep’s first year at Bayern Munich. They played 60-odd games and for one week he had his full squad available. That’s the reality of top-level physical sports now.
“One of the things I think we did well in the warm-up games was create that adaptable squad and I think that’s the way the game is going; having adaptable squads. Obviously you have a strongest team, but the reality of putting all your marbles into that team is unrealistic. I have a much more open approach to selection because of that and it has evolved quite quickly in the last three or four months.”
Jones could yet go full-strength with his side should he decide it necessary to take Tonga as seriously as possible, though he has to take into account their second match of the World Cup pool stage against the United States that comes just four days later.
What the fixture list does give England though is a progressive path through the pool stage, with their weakest opponents according to the World Rugby rankings in 16th-placed Tonga up first, before taking on the USA (13th), Argentina (11th) and France (8th).
With that in mind, Jones expects England to face five tough matches in a row if they reach the final, but history has lead the Australian to lead towards demanding seven wins from seven if they are to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
“I think it has changed a lot. We’ve got to win seven games in a row, and it’s the only tournament in the world where you’ve got to win seven games in a row, on consecutive weeks,” Jones said. “With the quality of teams having arisen over the last four years in particular, you’ve now got at least four difficult games. For us to win the World Cup we’ve got five difficult games in a row so it’s about consistency, resilience, being able to keep a calmness but at the same time rise to the physical challenge of being at your best.”
If England were to come unstuck along the way and qualify for the knockout stage via second place in Pool C, Jones admits it will be difficult to live up to his expectations that they can win the World Cup. “No team has ever done it because you go on the other side of the draw, which used to be problematic,” he added. “Who knows these days. But history is made to be broken. This could be the one where it is broken.”