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‘We needed to be braver’: England’s new mindset has them set for Japan
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‘We needed to be braver’: England’s new mindset has them set for Japan

As recently as four months ago England were caught between two stools. Their desire to play a different brand of rugby was not being matched by their on-field execution and they had just been beaten 30-21 in Scotland. It had the feel of a genuine sliding-doors moment and a clear-the-air meeting was duly convened.

The bottom line was simple. There was significant talent in the backline which was not being sufficiently utilised. A collective change of mindset was required if England were going to fulfil their attacking potential, as one of the team’s new vice-captains Henry Slade recalled this week.

“After the Scotland game we had a chat as a squad, coaches and players. We decided we needed to be braver, call for the ball more and get the ball to the outside channels because we have such dangerous players out there. We wanted to get the ball in their hands more. The best way to do that is to be playing a more expansive game.”

Since then England have beaten this year’s Six Nations champions Ireland and lost to France in the closing seconds of a thrilling game in Lyon. Their self-belief is rising again and good players whose ability had been stifled by unambitious gameplans have been reinvigorated.

For the likes of Slade, painfully omitted from last year’s World Cup squad, and his midfield partner Ollie Lawrence, dropped from a great height under Eddie Jones, international rugby is suddenly fun again.

Of course there still needs to be be defensive rigour and tactical shape but, after 62 caps, the 31-year-old Slade sounds as if a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. “I mean, I’ve had a great career for England and been part of some really great squads. I’ve had some great experiences but, overall, there is probably a little bit of frustration in terms of how we have played sometimes, how I’ve played and how many opportunities I’ve had to get on the ball.

“I do think the way we’ve tried to progress now is a much more enjoyable way to play. I can put myself in the game a lot more and feel a lot more excited every time I come into camp and get to represent England.”

Steve Borthwick and England face Japan on Saturday and then head to New Zealand for two Tests against the All Blacks.View image in fullscreen

For Lawrence it is also a far cry from the day against Scotland in 2021 when an hour had elapsed before the centre finally touched the ball. Jones, who will be guiding Japan against England on Saturday, was also less than complimentary about the then 21-year-old in a book published later that same year. “The way that some of the media raves about him you would think he’s already assured of becoming one of the best players in the world,” wrote Jones. “He might do that, one day, but his attitude was not hungry or disciplined enough.”

Fast forward to this week and there is the potential for Lawrence, now 25 and loving his rugby again for Bath, to persuade his former coach to update that assessment. “The back line has some serious talent in it. That’s one of the biggest things for us; we want to keep bringing intent to the way we play. That shift towards the back end of the Six Nations will definitely continue this summer. Hopefully we can take it up to another level.”

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With Marcus Smith on the field from the start – “We know how good he is on the ball, putting people into gaps and taking on defenders himself” – and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso and Tommy Freeman on the wings, there will certainly be no shortage of attacking threats for Japan to shut down.

Even if England cut loose, though, Lawrence, will not be rushing to lob any grenades back at Jones. “He gave me my first opportunity in international rugby. He was a coach who challenged me and, looking back, that was a good thing for me. I needed that. Later on in my career I will look back and be thankful it wasn’t as easy as I may have wanted it to be. He was honest with me and that’s what you need sometimes.”

As England’s senior players also know from experience, Jones will be desperate for Japan to make life awkward for their visitors, with temperatures of 30 degrees celsius also anticipated. Whether or not this involves cuttng a red rose with a Samurai sword in a Japanese team meeting – Jones enjoys his visual metaphors – Slade is suitably wary. “We know they’ll be a well-coached team – fit, strong, raring to go – and he’ll have something up his sleeve. The exciting challenge is to be the other side of it this week and to play against him. Hopefully we can have a good day.”

Source: theguardian.com