Eddie Jones has armed his ‘poisoned’ players with a fabricated siege mentality for Saturday’s showdown with Ireland — hoping they use it to prove the epic win over France was not a glorious fluke.
The England head coach is forever on alert for any trace of complacency — the ‘shadows in the corners’ he has spoken of so often.
Such is his desire to avoid a jarring comedown this week that he has purposely injected tension into a newly happy camp.
England beat France 23-20 at Twickenham last Saturday in a pulsating, energetic encounter
It was possibly England’s best showing since the World Cup semi-final against New Zealand
Having made it clear that he regards praise and criticism as dangerous twin imposters which need to be flushed out of his squad, Jones must hope that he has completed the emergency detox prior to kick-off on Saturday or his side are doomed in their Six Nations finale.
He has been antagonised by condemnation during the early stages of the tournament and acclaim for the last performance.
His players may be bemused to find English wagons being circled after a supreme result. Yet similar crude psychological ploys have worked before.
Prior to England’s momentous World Cup semi-final triumph over the All Blacks in 2019, Jones suggested the All Blacks might have spied on England’s training sessions.
His logic will be that his team tend to scale the heights when their backs are against the wall. But his attempts to foster that mentality a week later were in vain as the Springboks claimed the Webb Ellis Cup in Yokohama.
Boss Eddie Jones is keen to keep his players’ feet on the ground despite the fine performance
The objective for the England hierarchy this week has been to guard against a slight mental switch-off after Owen Farrell and Co conquered the French in a classic at Twickenham.
According to Billy Vunipola, that was a feat which should serve as a ‘springboard’ for prosperity — in terms of the result itself and the positive manner in which it was achieved.
This match against Ireland provides the first opportunity to give substance to that optimistic theory. England cannot go back. They cannot lapse into caution.
The expansion of their attacking repertoire has been productive and popular — re-engaging the rugby public — so it would be a crying shame if what happened seven days ago turned out to be an aberration.
There appears to have been a concerted attempt to dampen English expectations, with grave warnings about how the conditions and the approach of the opposition can stifle ambition. Jones has set the scene for a cagier affair.
England full-back Max Malins (right) should be braced for an attritional, tactical aerial battle
Asked if an attritional contest is likely, the head coach said: ‘Yeah, 100 per cent. A lot more aerial contests, a lot more working off kicks. Ireland have, over the last period of time, kicked the ball a lot more. We are anticipating they will play like that.’
If that isn’t enough to stop pulses racing, Farrell echoed this sense that aerial ping pong is in prospect, adding: ‘The game last week was obviously an exciting one for everybody to watch and of course it’s brilliant to be involved in matches like that.
‘But Test match rugby doesn’t always pan out that way. Ireland have been getting a lot of change out of their kicking game recently. It’s something we’ve got to be ready for.’
Even Jones’ welcome decision to recall Elliot Daly in his favourite outside centre role was couched in terms of his ability to make, chase and defend kicks, although it was also noted that he has the capacity to trouble the hosts with outside breaks.
Another vast TV audience — English viewers, anyway – will be hoping it is the Saracen’s running game which comes to the fore. Beating France does not allow England the luxury of cruising.
Ireland’s successful half-back partnership of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton is back
The Ireland duo will be trying to eclipse Ben Youngs (right) and George Ford (left) at half-back
Two wins from five would not be acceptable
They need another win, as a return of two from five games is unacceptable, even allowing for a degree of transition. That was the final tally in 2018 and it was deemed to be a crisis.
Conversely, victory in Dublin would at least ensure a recovery from the depths of a shock home defeat at the hands of Scotland on the opening weekend. England have dominated this rivalry of late, but they will heed the cautionary tale from 2017.
They arrived in the Irish capital on a world record-equalling run of victories, only to succumb to their first setback of the Jones era. Peter O’Mahony, their nemesis that day, is lurking among the home replacements, ready to influence the closing stages.
Of course, eyes will be drawn to the half-back match-ups with obvious connotations beyond the confines of this match, as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton attempt to out-smart Ben Youngs and George Ford, in front of Lions boss Warren Gatland.
But the battle up front will largely decide this mid-table skirmish and while James Ryan will be missed by Ireland, he has been upstaged during this championship by the outstanding Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne.
Ireland could beat England for the 50th time, but England have won the last four against them
Those two will lead the resistance to England’s thunderous pack, with Billy Vunipola back in prime form, Maro Itoje imperious again and Tom Curry, at only 22, rising towards the pantheon of legendary forwards.
Kyle Sinckler is another who is in the groove again and his presence on the same field as Tadhg Furlong will highlight how lucky the Lions are to have two men of such clout and skill vying for the Test No 3 shirt this summer.
It is impossible to navigate an Ireland-England build-up without mentioning the Farrell father-son dynamic. After emerging well from a personal rut, Owen and his team-mates can keep the pressure on his father Andy, whose regime as Ireland head coach has still not found its own springboard.
Whoever loses this one is destined to be confronted by a real siege situation. That is more likely to be Ireland.