England's power and depth gives them fighting chance of 2003 repeat
By Mitch Phillips
LONDON, Sept 12 (Reuters) - The received wisdom for World Cup success is to build a team boasting over 600 caps with the key combinations long bedded in. England are trying a different approach and, via some bumps in the road, seem to be coming to the boil in their own way.
Coach Eddie Jones, of course, is the driving force behind the bewildering array of changes of personnel and tactics that have made it virtually impossible to predict an England starting XV, let alone a tactical approach over the last few years.
After some experimentation, Jones seemed to have finally settled on Owen Farrell as his flyhalf, but in the warm-ups of the last few weeks he has looked again at playing him at 12 outside George Ford.
Until last month Mark Wilson seemed to come from nowhere to have nailed down the blindside flanker's spot but, such is the ever-changing approach to refereeing the breakdown, Jones has tried partnering youthful opensides Tom Curry and Sam Underhill as twin flankers.
He consistently poured cold water on the clamour to select giant winger Joe Cokanasiga only to finally do so and see him move to a probable starting berth, certainly in the absence of the injured Jack Nowell for the first three pool games.
Dan "penalty" Cole was deemed surplus to requirements a year ago, yet here he is back in the squad as Jones recognises the stability and experience he brings to the scrum - while at the same time selecting rookie backs Ruaridh McConnochie and Willie Heinz for Japan.
What he has ended up with is a coach's tournament dream -- a squad boasting real depth, where the vast majority could be expected to start without weakening the whole.
"We want to have options and that's what we've been working towards since I've been here," said Jones, who promised he would play "fish and chip" traditional rugby when he took over nearly four years ago.
"Sometimes the opposition team doesn't allow you to put the batter on the fish, so you've got to play a different way," he said last month.
"That's the challenge - being adaptable - looking at what's happening in the game and where we can take it."
England's warm-up campaign went, generally, very well.
They had a convincing home win over Wales before narrowly losing the "arm wrestle" of the return fixture in Cardiff. They then looked world beaters in chalking up a record victory over Ireland and dismissed Italy without conceding a point.
Italy coach Conor O'Shea said - before the match and after - that "any team who beat England will win the World Cup - they have so much power" and there is no doubt that even New Zealand, who they could well face in the semi-finals, will give them the utmost respect.
"When we play well we win, it's as simple as that - we're not a team that needs the opposition to have an off day for us to win," said lock Maro Itoje, like captain Farrell, a serial winner at Saracens.
England have an awkward group, but the matches fall well for them. They open against Tonga before facing the United States five days later. Then come the crunch games against France and Argentina. Progress would bring them a probable quarter-final against Australia or Wales.
Nobody in the camp, however, will be allowing themselves to look that far ahead, particularly after what happened four years ago when shock Twickenham defeats to Wales and Australia saw them go out at the pool stage for the first time.
And nobody knows better than Jones how being favourites can count for nothing, having masterminded Japan's upset of South Africa in the 2015 tournament.
Even with those caveats, though, England will travel in confident mood and have a fighting chance of repeating their success of 2003 when they became the first, and still only, team to loosen the southern hemisphere big three's grip of the Webb Ellis Cup.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford )