The Algarve: Sun, sea, sand and, if you are the England rugby squad, a chance to discuss salary caps.
Eddie Jones – a man not known for sugar-coating his words – made clear that England’s pre-Six Nations training camp in Portugal offered not just preparation time but also an opportunity to clear the air in the wake of the Saracens scandal.
Joe Marler described the situation as the “elephant in the room”, while Jones himself said the players needed to “get it out on the table” so they could all move on. The hope is voicing any grievances with what happened at the Premiership club will not allow any resentment to fester and, potentially, cause a splintering in the ranks.
While their futures at club level remain uncertain, some of Sarries’ stars will once again provide the backbone for England’s push for glory in this year’s championship. The one notable absentee is Billy Vunipola, once again sidelined due to a broken arm. Yet even without the number eight, hopes are rightly high for success.
They will no doubt have memories of their last outing, a painful Rugby World Cup final that did not go to plan. Having ended New Zealand’s longstanding grip on the Webb Ellis Cup with a stunning semi-final win, England failed to hit the same heights in the showpiece game. In truth, they didn’t even come close.
That 32-12 loss to the Springboks in Yokohama must have hurt back in November, but – now the dust has settled and the debrief is all done – it can provide a catalyst to raise the bar, rather than the beginning of the end for the current crop.
Asked in a media conference if there was a concern over a World Cup hangover still lingering, young flanker Tom Curry offered a response that was both swift and to the point: “No”.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 1, 2020
Jones will not tolerate any self-pity either. Instead, the Australian will expect a reaction, starting with their trip to Paris on opening weekend.
For Les Bleus, this feels like the first chapter in a new story. Head coach Fabien Galthie selected 19 uncapped players in his initial squad, suggesting he is free to shape the script going forward.
England, however, do not have the thought of the 2023 World Cup at the forefront of their minds. Jones may not even still be in charge by then – his current deal runs until August 2021 – so his only focus is on winning now.
Trusted lieutenants will once again will be relied upon to lead in the heat of battle, including Saracens duo Owen Farrell, who captains the team against France, and Maro Itoje.
With Ireland and Wales – Grand Slam winners in 2018 and 2019 respectively – beginning new regimes following the departures of longstanding coaches, the familiar faces lining up in white shirts are considered favourites to reign this year.
After so much talk around off-field issues and World Cup hangovers, the players may just be grateful just to get on with playing games.
Vunipola’s absence is an obvious blow, considering his ball-carrying abilities, but there is more than enough power in the pack to cope without him. The time for talking is over; England know there are no excuses for failing to deliver a first title since 2017.
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