Combined Ireland and England XV shows how much has changed in nine months
On March 17th 2018, Ireland went to a freezing Twickenham and won a Grand Slam on enemy turf.
Joe Schmidt had his game-plan on the nose, Jacob Stockdale was causing chaos, Tadhg Furlong was creating tries with deft passes and both James Ryan and Dan Leavy had ushered in a new era.
For Eddie Jones, he had seen enough. It was time to make some hard choices. Look at some of the names that featured that March day and you will see how Jones pressed the re-set button:
- Jonathan Joseph
- Ben Te'o
- Richard Wigglesworth
- Dylan Hartley
- James Haskell
- Chris Robshaw
England went to South Africa that summer and while the lost the series, the pressure on Jones was eased by a victory over the Springboks in the final tour game. The likes of Henry Slade and Tom Curry featured in that win, with Elliott Daly moving to fullback.
The tweaking, and culling, went on through the November internationals and a new-look England were ready for the 2019 Guinness Six Nations. It helped that Jones could call on players such as Mako Vunipola, Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola again.
Wales would win the Grand Slam after edging England in a crucial round three match in Cardiff. However, over the summer, with Ireland and Wales both dealing with injuries and questions over form, Jones' men looked the best set of all the northern hemisphere sides.
So it has proved at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with England booking themselves a final against South Africa this coming Saturday [9am kick-off, Irish time]. On the latest episode of Baz & Andrew's House of Rugby, Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery discussed the new world order.
Trimble notes how the English players converge on teammates after a turnover, good tackle or scrum win and how they use that to motivate themselves during games.
The former Ulster and Ireland winger remarks that such exuberance was in marked contrast with the reaction at the final whistle:
"They're pretty relentless," he says. "They win the game, they beat New Zealand - one of the best performances I've ever seen - and they're just like, 'Right, onto next week.' Pure poker faced. But then there are moments in the game where you can see pure energy in the team. You can see loving playing for each other. It was so impressive."
Flannery believes the fitness and defensive cohesion displayed by England were key in the 19-7 semi final win over New Zealand, on Saturday. "They're just so well conditioned," he began.
"And they would have been exhausted by the end of that game because, even though they were comprehensive, there were so many times when New Zealand could have ripped them apart, because they're New Zealand.
"So, even though England were dominant, nearly everywhere, New Zealand still had twice as many clean breaks. They had nearly over 250 metres more on carries. You know, like, had way more offloads. There were so many times... That's why new Zealand are so hard to beat.
"And it was such a complete performance by England that even though, when they were stretched, they still scrambled and you get massive turnovers from Tom Curry or a massive, massive hit from Sam Underhill just suddenly stems the tide of four positive win moments from New Zealand."
In an 18-month spell, Jones moved on from many of his trusted lieutenants and went to the World Cup with a team in his mould. For Ireland, Joe Schmidt - albeit hampered by injuries to opensides Sean O'Brien and Dan Leavy - went with the familiar and it was one of the main factors in their downfall.
You don't even have to go back 18 months. Go to the morning of February 2nd 2019, before Ireland played England in their Guinness Six Nations opener. Based on the two sides selected, this is a fair representation of what many fans would have selected in a combined XV (player in bold gets selected).
FEBRUARY 2nd 2019 - Combined Ireland/England XV
15. Robbie Henshaw/Elliott Daly
14. Keith Earls/Jack Nowell
13. Garry Ringrose/Henry Slade
12. Bundee Aki/Manu Tuilagi
11. Jacob Stockdale/Jonny May
10. Johnny Sexton/Owen Farrell
9. Conor Murray/Ben Youngs
1. Cian Healy/Mako Vunipola
2. Rory Best/Jamie George
3. Tadhg Furlong/Kyle Sinckler
4. Devin Toner/Maro Itoje
5. James Ryan/George Kruis
6. Peter O'Mahony/Mark Wilson
7. Josh van der Flier/Tom Curry
8. CJ Stander/Billy Vunipola
A 10/5 split in favour of Ireland, the defending champions, with Henshaw perhaps fortunate to edge Daly out there as he has not had an abundance of Test rugby at 15.
The new-look England walloped Ireland that day and the balance of power was shifted considerably. Two paths diverged with Ireland's ultimately leading to a quarter final exit.
England's path? It has taken them to the World Cup final and it will be a shock if they fall to the Springboks at Yokohama International Stadium.
Pick a combined team right now and Ireland are lucky to get three in the XV (Irish players in bold).
NOVEMBER 2nd 2019 - Combined Ireland/England XV
15. Elliott Daly
14. Anthony Watson
13. Manu Tuilagi
12. Owen Farrell
11. Jonny May
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray
1. Mako Vunipola
2. Jamie George
3. Kyle Sinckler
4. Maro Itoje
5. James Ryan
6. Tom Curry
7. Sam Underhill
8. Billy Vunipola
Johnny Sexton makes the cut as Farrell plays inside centre and Conor Murray squeaks past Ben Youngs. Even cutting Courtney Lawes for James Ryan feels like a big call.
It has been a long and jarring nine months.
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The latest episode sees Andrew Trimble and Jerry Flannery look back on the GOOD vs. EVIL World Cup semi finals and this weekend's final.