England aiming for ‘Everest’ in bid for rugby record
By Aimee Lewis
(CNN) — Like adventurers tackling the world’s highest mountains, England’s rugby team is on an epic journey.
While Saturday’s attempt to win a record 19th successive international match will not take the players to the summit, it represents another hard-fought climb towards their Everest.
“To go from where we are to greatness takes another step of endeavor,” coach Eddie Jones, who is unbeaten since taking charge in 2015, told reporters ahead of the clash with Ireland.
“It takes greater focus, it takes greater persistence, it takes greater emotional output.”
Much is at stake in Dublin.
Victory would eclipse New Zealand’s landmark of 18 successive Test victories by a tier-one nation, which England equaled last weekend with a 61-21 demolition of Scotland.
That record romp secured a successful defense of the Six Nations title, and another win would make England the first team to complete back-to-back Grand Slams since the tournament expanded in 2000.
It would also be the first time England has won every game in successive seasons since the 1991-92 Five Nations.
‘It’s like climbing a mountain’
Only 14 months ago, England was humiliated on home soil, becoming the first Rugby World Cup host to be knocked out in the group stage.
Out went Stuart Lancaster, in came former Japan coach Jones — and the team’s transformation has been remarkable.
“It is like climbing up a mountain,” said the Australian, whose Wallabies side suffered defeat in the 2003 World Cup final against England.
“Every time you go to another level of the mountain it becomes more unstable. The ground becomes more unstable, your ears hurt, your nose hurts,” added Jones, who was a technical adviser for South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning team.
“It is exactly the same when you are climbing the ladder of success — everything becomes a bit harder.”
Not yet No. 1
After humiliating Scotland at Twickenham, Jones was quick to tell the media his second-ranked team was not yet the best in the world.
While the All Blacks became the first side to retain the World Cup on the way to setting a record winning run that ended in Chicago against Ireland last November, Jones says his squad is not yet at that level.
“We don’t have the density that we need to win a World Cup in terms of leaders,” said the 57-year-old, England’s first foreign coach.
“Having said that we’ve progressed a long way in the 14 months we’ve been together.”
It is unclear if England’s players will have an opportunity to test themselves against the three-time world champion All Blacks this year.
The two teams did not meet in last year’s northern hemisphere international series and no fixture has been agreed for this November — it was reported this week that English clubs are opposed to adding an extra Test into their autumn schedule.
Jones said he had “no view” on his team’s fixture list, adding that his only concern was Ireland.
“If the All Blacks want to turn up to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday and want to play us after Ireland, then we’ll consider it,” he said.
“We want to be the No. 1 team in the world. When we get the opportunity to play them, we’ll play them.”
A boost for England?
Back-row forward Billy Vunipola, a player who has developed into a world-class talent during Jones’ tenure, returns to the starting lineup in the No. 8 position against Ireland.
The 126 kg behemoth’s inclusion, having been used as a replacement against Scotland, will give the visiting team extra strength and power.
England has won just twice — in 2003 and 2013 — in eight previous visits to Dublin in this tournament.
Ireland has lost two key men, scrumhalf Conor Murray and fullback Rob Kearney, to injury following last Friday’s defeat against Wales in Cardiff.
The absence of Murray — regarded as a certainty for the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in June and July — will particularly affect the home team’s kicking game, and put more pressure on flyhalf Johnny Sexton.
“Conor is a world-class scrumhalf and we’ve built up a really strong relationship over the last three years, maybe longer,” playmaker Sexton said.
“He’d be a loss to any team in the world when he’s at his best.”
Ireland, coached by New Zealander Joe Schmidt, could yet finish runner-up in the Six Nations with a third victory of the tournament.
Home fans will be in strong voice, as the match will be a continuation of Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
“We can still attain the target of second place, so there’s still a heck of a lot for us to gain individually and collectively,” Schmidt said.
France, which is level with Ireland on 10 points, hosts Wales in Saturday’s middle kickoff.
Scotland, which like the French and Welsh has two wins and two losses, hosts bottom nation Italy in the day’s opening game.