Five ‘Sliding Doors’ moments that turned England into potential world champions

From the moment that Eddie Jones took over as England head coach, he could not have made his ambition any more clear, writes Charlie Talbot-Smith.

He wanted to bring a wilting Red Rose, after the disaster of 2015, back to full bloom – to re-establish them as the No.1 side in the world and to win the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

He is now 80 minutes away from doing all three. The Jones masterplan has been in full effect but, like in any sport, good fortune has played its part along the way.

Consider, if you will, the following lucky breaks en route to Yokohama.

Craig Livingstone and the Stormers break clause

Here’s a quote from Eddie Jones, in November 2015: “It’s an honour to have this opportunity to coach one of the oldest and most prestigious teams in the world.”

He must be talking about England after being announced as their new head coach right? Wrong.

In fact, that statement came from Jones – only a week before his change of heart – on the official Stormers website after agreeing to become the Super Rugby franchise's new boss.

After guiding Japan to their historic win in Brighton, the Australian was a man in high demand and had signed a lucrative deal with the Cape Town-based side.

But RFU Chief Executive at the time Ian Ritchie wanted Jones to replace Stuart Lancaster, and wasn’t taking no for an answer.

Jones had just days before signed a three-year deal with the Stormers, and it looked like the Australian might therefore cost the best part of £700,000 to get out of his contract.

A fee of that size was an inevitable stumbling block, but it is understood that there turned out to be a break clause in Jones’ agreement with the Stormers.

The compensation fee ended up being a lot lower (rumoured to be around 100k in the end) and, although Ritchie has since said he would have waited a year to get his man, the fact that Jones could arrive immediately and oversee a Grand Slam in 2016 was integral to the team’s upward trajectory.

After flying to Cape Town to broker the deal, Ritchie thrashed out the details with Jones’ agent Craig Livingstone and the rest, as they say, is history…

Ben Curry’s back

You can make a pretty solid case that Tom Curry has been England’s player of the World Cup.

The 21-year-old is the only forward in their squad to have played every minute of every match so far, but it could so easily have been his twin brother Ben who got there first.

After making an early impression on the Sale first team, the siblings were both called up by Jones for the first time back in May 2017 ahead of England’s Twickenham clash with the Barbarians.

Ben, the elder of the two by a matter of minutes, actually caught Jones’ eye first and it was he who was picked on the bench for the clash against the invitational side.

However, the day before the game a back injury ruled Ben out of contention and Tom stepped onto the bench in his stead.

An early injury to Sam Underhill – now of course his partner in crime out in Japan – brought Curry junior into the game before half-time.

And the flanker looked to the manor born from his first involvement. A man of the match performance saw him play a key role in both of England’s second-half tries in a 28-14 victory.

From then, fitness permitting, a back-row berth has been his for the taking. A full debut arrived in Argentina that summer while a number of England’s front-line stars were with the British & Irish Lions...

Sonny Bill Williams’ shoulder

Jones has made no secret of the importance of the Lions' drawn Test series with New Zealand two years ago.

In the build-up to the semi-final against the world champions last week, the head coach went out of his way time and time again to mention it.

In press conferences and even press releases, Jones re-emphasised the confidence that the Wellington second Test win had given his men.

It makes sense when you consider that only six members of this 31-man squad have beaten the All Blacks while wearing white.

The Lions Tour was a huge moment for northern hemisphere rugby, but it pays to remember that Warren Gatland’s side were thumped in the first Test at Eden Park.

They arrived in Wellington staring yet another series defeat in the face, and then Sonny Bill Williams had his moment of madness.

His first-half shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson changed the trajectory of that Lions Tour, and rugby history.

The Lions struggled to get over the line that day even against 14 men after Williams became the first All Black to see red in 50 years. It is safe to say they wouldn’t have won without him.

But Maro Itoje was immense in his first Lions Test start and victory was eventually secured thanks to the boot of Owen Farrell.

Suddenly the series was alive, the All Blacks has been proven vulnerable, and on their return home Jones asked each of his tourists to compile dossiers on their opposite men.

The tactical insight in that homework probably didn’t stand the test of time, considering the change in both personnel and playing style undergone by both sides in the fast-moving world of international rugby.

But the belief was both important and potent. You don’t stare down a haka like England did last weekend unless it is coursing through your veins.

Piet van Zyl’s double

This one needs a few leaps of faith so bear with me.

By the end of the 2017/18 Premiership season something had gone very wrong at Harlequins.

Once perennial play-off pushers and champions as recently as 2012, the London club were languishing and ended up down in tenth in the final standings.

The writing was on the wall for boss John Kingston, but it was a 35-5 home defeat to bottom club London Irish that effectively signed his death warrant.

South African scrum-half Piet van Zyl was Quins’ tormentor in chief that day with two tries and Kingston’s departure was announced not 48 hours later.

That Stoop vacancy proved too good for Paul Gustard, until then Jones’ right-hand man and defence coach, to turn down.

Gustard stayed for the South Africa tour that summer, a 2-1 series defeat that signalled a huge changing of the guard.

Thereafter Gustard went to Quins, and Chris Robshaw and Mike Brown with him – neither ever appeared for England again.

But more importantly, there was now a vacancy at defence coach for England and John Mitchell was the man for the job.

The Kiwi, like Jones before him, took some releasing from his Super Rugby contract with the Bulls, but by that autumn he was firmly ensconced.

And England’s defence has shifted up a gear ever since.

That is not to demean Gustard’s role with England, after all he was in charge of a defence that shipped only four tries on the way to the Grand Slam in 2016 and his impact at Quins is already clear to see.

But ask any of the players, or Jones himself, and they will tell you that Mitchell’s arrival with England has taken them to the next level.

Brutality is the word that England return to time and again when talking about their defensive work, and Mitchell’s hands-on experience as a former All Black head coach has been pivotal.

England have conceded only four tries this World Cup and their performance last weekend in dismantling an All Black attack that was, until then, the envy of the world game was mind-blowing.

Michael Leitch

One of the stars of this World Cup has undoubtedly been Japan captain Michael Leitch.

Indeed it was a real surprise he didn’t make the shortlist for World Rugby’s player of the year this weekend.

But as well as being the face of this tournament, Leitch has also played a helping hand in getting England to the verge of world domination.

His first bit of assistance came four years ago in Brighton when, as Brave Blossoms skipper, he refused to take three points with a late penalty and settle for a draw against the Springboks.

Instead they opted for a scrum to chase an historic victory. Seven phases later, Karne Hesketh was over in the corner and sporting immortality was theirs.

That incredible win, undoubtedly the biggest shock in rugby history, cemented Jones’ reputation as the best in the business and made him priority No.1 for England in the post-Lancaster fallout.

Then three years later, again it was Leitch leading the charge as Japan gave England a serious fright at Twickenham in an autumn international.

The former Chiefs flanker scored a sublime solo try and at the interval, the Brave Blossoms led 15-10 against Jones’ men.

England’s head coach wielded the axe in the second half, Farrell and Underhill introduced almost immediately.

And while England eventually cruised to victory, that Leitch-inspired half cost a huge number of England internationals their place on the plane to Japan.

Indeed, 11 of that matchday 23 did not make Jones’ 31-man squad less than a year on – including squad stalwarts like Danny Care, Harry Williams and Alex Lozowski who have not started for England since.

Jones had made his mind up, and the right blend for this Japanese adventure might never have been found without Leitch and co’s inspired first 40.

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