Whatever happens in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Eddie Jones' next move should be into cinematic script writing. The England boss knows how to take fans on a rollercoaster journey, draw out every emotion along the way and deliver plot twists out of nowhere.
The euphoria of an immediate Grand Slam, Australian whitewash and world record equalling run of victories was followed by an erratic drop in form, coaching resignations and a fondness for combat based training methods. The plot twists even occurred within games: outfoxed by Italy, out run by South Africa and out muscled by France. In 2019, England appear to have turned a corner and arrive as one of the favourites in Japan. Here are five things that need to happen for them to win their first World Cup for 16 years.
Mako Vunipola gets fit
It's a risk to go with just four fit props, meaning they'll all be involved in every game. It's exacerbated when the fifth, currently injured for the first three pool games, is Mako Vunipola. He has the workrate of two props on his own. England need him fit and firing. Or else I hope Ben Moon is currently on an impromptu Asian fishing trip somewhere nearby.
Manu Tuilagi and Billy Vunipola need to stay fit
Two giant men whose physical presence, when absent for long periods, has left big holes in England's attack. They're irreplaceable, shown by the fact Eddie Jones hasn't selected anyone else with their skill set to deputise in his 31 man squad. As well as being game-breakers in their own right, their sheer presence creates such havoc in opposition defences, critical to unlocking the world's best sides. Can this pair last for seven straight games? I hope Eddie's taken an industrial sized bag of cotton wool!
Leadership and problem solving must improve
It should be an ominous sign for other contenders that England haven't put an 80 minute performance together for a long time. They've veered from irresistible to inexplicable within individual matches, a proclivity world champions just don't share. Tactical naivety has been exposed at times, England robotically going through a pre-planned repertoire even when it's failing. A huge amount of responsibility is on the shoulders of Ben Youngs, George Ford and skipper Owen Farrell to problem solve ‘on the fly'. England have the chess pieces to win. They just need a stone cold Grand Master's mind in the heat of battle. A consistent England would frighten the life out of the rest of the World.
Discipline has got to be better
Going hand in hand with point three, England's mental lapses have seen them prone to spells of brain-dead penalties or avoidable yellow cards. If men like Kyle Sinckler and Dan Cole can keep the top two inches on ice and ride those waves of pressure, England can come through the crucial tests which World Cups always deliver.
Jonny May must star
Such is his form, I'm confident Jonny May would make the pre World Cup ‘World XV' of most pundits. Which is some statement given Ioane, Mapimpi, Kolbe and co are among a particularly talented batch of electric wingers gracing this year's tournament. You'd struggle to argue against May having been England's most consistent and dependable player since he was overlooked for the 2017 Lions Tour. Defensively, under the high ball and as a finisher, he has laid the platform to be one of the stars of the 2019 World Cup. In tight games he could be the difference.
There's a lot to like about this England squad. It feels very ‘2019'. Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler are a WWE tag team or a Buddy Cop movie duo in waiting (working title “Bad Cop, Bad Cop”) not to mention explosive 21st Century props with the handling skills of a fly-half. In Sickler's case I predict an endorsement deal with Fairy Liquid, so soft are his hands.
Mark Wilson and Tom Curry exemplify the hard work, honesty and humility rugby fans hold so dear. Northern grit from Ford and Farrell. West Country flair from Slade and May. And a healthy contingent of proven winners from the all conquering Saracens. The stage is set. What ending has Jones written for us? You get the feeling it'll be either glory or tragedy.
My pre-World Cup World XV
When England lifted the trophy in 2003 they boasted at least half of a World XV, and, and among them greats of the game like Johnson, Dallaglio, Robinson and Wilkinson. This 2019 vintage isn't nearly as dominant, but it's revealing that I have more Englishmen in XV than from any other nation. Blinkered bias? What do you think?
15. Liam Williams (WAL)
14. Cheslin Kolbe (SA)
13. MANU TUILAGI (ENG)
12. Ryan Crotty (NZ)
11. JONNY MAY (ENG)
10. Beauden Barrett (NZ)
9. Antoine DuPont (FRA)
1. MAKO VUNIPOLA (ENG)
2. Dane Coles (NZ)
3. Frans Malherbe (SA)
4. Brodie Retallick (NZ)
5. MARO ITOJE (ENG)
6. Pieter Steph Du Toit (SA)
7. Michael Hooper (AUS)
8. BILLY VUNIPOLA (ENG)
England – 5
New Zealand – 4
South Africa – 3
Australia – 1
Wales – 1
France – 1