England host the United States at Twickenham on Sunday afternoon on US Independence Day, but it is Eddie Jones’s side for whom new beginnings loom. With a bit of luck a sense of freedom too because, while this is a vastly different side in personnel, the turgid performances during the Six Nations still linger and England could do with reinvigoration.
There is no danger of defeat: the US have not played since the 2019 World Cup, have a host of raw, inexperienced players and are without the instrumental fly-half AJ MacGinty. The same can be said of the fixture against Canada next Saturday, so performances rather than points are what matters most.
How many of this callow England side – there are eight debutants in the starting XV including the captain, Lewis Ludlow, and the fly-half, Marcus Smith, and anotherfour on the bench – appear for Jones again after this summer remains to be seen but he is intent on giving them the chance to force his hand. He repeatedly cites the 2017 tour against Argentina when Tom Curry and Sam Underhill made their debuts, but perhaps less than personnel, it is England’s overall approach that has been in need of an overhaul.
Jones likes to try to be ahead of the curve when it comes to international trends. On occasion it can sound like making excuses, planning for the future rather than focusing on the present, but he has a habit of getting things right at World Cups and he believes there is now greater emphasis on speed.
“World Rugby, and I’m part of the working committee for that, is very insistent that we want a better game and to get that we need more consistent ruck speed,” he said last month.
Accordingly he has named Smith alongside Harry Randall at hal-fback. It was seven months ago George Ford described the ball as a timebomb that England would all too often kick away but the hope is that on Sunday they explode into attack.
Equally, Jones has acknowledged that England’s pack had underperformed during the Six Nations and he wanted it to be “feared around the world”. While it is hardly reinventing the wheel to seek a group of menacing forwards and electric backs there is a sense of Jones turning the page, of the next chapter of the four-year cycle beginning.
Jones certainly seems refreshed after the disastrous Six Nations campaign and rejuvenated by the opportunity to work with so many new faces. His insistence that his consultancy work in Japan was done because he felt the need to “practise coaching” did not entirely convince, but evidently he is in his element with so many rookies. “The less they have played at this level, the more they tend to listen,” he said recently. “For these guys we have to guide and direct a bit more.”
The injury rate of this camp is alarmingly high – Chunya Munga is the latest to go down – but clearly Jones and his coaches are determined to make the most out of these two fixtures which were initially due to be held in the US, only for Covid-19 regulations to force a switch.
“It’s reasonably restricted, but we had hotdogs and Budweiser beer night,” Jones said. “That’s the closest to the USA we’re going to get. The restrictions are still there and we’ve tried to encourage the players to enjoy themselves as much as possible.
“I need to keep a completely open mind about how many of these players will come through. If we can get four or five who can go on to be the best in their positions, it’ll be a fantastic position for us. This isn’t a temporary team, this is England playing USA. Everyone who wears the shirt has the chance to own that shirt.”