Eddie Jones continually promised England’s opening fixture against Ireland would be “brutal”.
In the build-up to a tournament like the Six Nations such phrases can be explained as fighting talk intended to ramp up the hype, but in this case England’s head coach chose his words carefully.
On Saturday he delivered on his promise as his side put to bed their dismal record in Dublin to beat the defending champions and tournament favourites 32-20.
The “big gain-line contest” Jones spoke of pre-match manifested itself and then some – and it was England who came out on top.
Look up “showing intent” in a sporting dictionary and the away side’s opening salvo will be used as an example; right from the first whistle they set about making their presence felt.
A long line-out from Jamie George sent Manu Tuilagi barrelling into the green line, giving England fans a glimpse of what they’ve been missing in the six years since the centre last started in the tournament. “When you have the likes of Manu in midfield you just want to get the ball into his hands and skip out the middle man,” explained George.
With Tuilagi offering power on the crash ball, Mako and Billy Vunipola restored to the scrum, hard-working flankers Tom Curry and Mark Wilson scavenging around the rucks and the bulk of Courtney Lawes and Nathan Hughes coming off the bench, England’s game-plan was obvious.
But imposing your style and bettering a side with 18 victories from their past 19 matches at a ground where they had won 12 in a row is not easy.
Yet that’s exactly what they did – and to a staggering extent. England may have missed 28 tackles to Ireland’s 13, but the ones they did make they conclusively won: they registered 48 dominant tackles – those which stop the opponent getting over the gain-line – to Ireland’s eight.
On the pitch, that statistic translated into unrivalled intensity and countless bone-crunching big hits, but also into moments that crossed the line.
England conceded twice as many penalties as their opposition, with Curry’s yellow card for a high tackle on Keith Earls and Maro Itoje’s backside-led aerial clash on the same player notable examples of the fine line England trod in the game.
“It is always physical when you play here and we knew we had to win that battle to win the game,” was how Jones explained it. Ireland’s Joe Schmidt, who had to deal with injuries to Earls, Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander and Devin Toner, understandably put it in coarser terms.
“We got man-handled a little bit. It’s not too dissimilar to the All Blacks here a couple of years ago when we got beaten up and we got beaten up again,” he said. “England are a big team and they bettered us physically. I do not think I have seen a game when our opponents have had so many dominant tackles and carried so physically.”
Of course you need artistry to go alongside the brutality and with Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell conducting traffic and Jonny May and Henry Slade clinical around the try-line, England had it in abundance.
After a week on a Portuguese training field, here was the Jones blueprint in full flow on the biggest occasion, against the No2 side in the world and in a game which could set the tone not only for the Six Nations, but the entire World Cup year.
The question now is: can England sustain it? Such a heavy-contact style is bound to bring casualties and the loss of Itoje to a knee ligament injury is worry, but after such a success it was not one Jones dwelled on.
“We will be better in the next game because we are still growing,” he said. “We are nowhere near our best.”