There was a serious point from Eddie Jones on Thursday relating to Rassie Erasmus’s toxic criticism of referees, but first – as ever – the hottest of topics generated a light-hearted reaction.
Having named a revamped team to take on the world-champion Springboks on Saturday at Twickenham, England’s head coach was asked about the enforced absence of the visitors’ divisive director of rugby. Erasmus is serving a match-day ban for a social media tirade aimed at English official Wayne Barnes, but Jones joked: ‘He might come in a laundry box. That’s been done before. I’m sure he will get in there somehow.’
It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to a stunt pulled by Jose Mourinho in 2005 when he managed to circumvent a matchday suspension by entering the stadium hidden in a laundry basket, to give a team talk to his Chelsea players. There is no way Erasmus will try anything so brazen at the home of English rugby, so he will watch from a distance, on TV.
Mako Vunipola says England’s World Cup final defeat was ‘his toughest experience in rugby’
Then came the serious take from Jones. ‘The only thing I’d say is that we have to respect the referees and look after the referees,’ he added. ‘They’re an important part of our game.’
Erasmus has shown no respect to officials, which is why he is once again regarded outside South Africa as a rugby pariah, despite his supreme feat in guiding the Boks to World Cup glory three years ago. Just weeks after returning from a 10-month matchday ban after a ‘character assassination’ of Australian referee Nic Berry during the Lions tour, he has brought the game into disrepute again.
Jones can be outspoken too, but he insisted that he learned about showing respect for those who take charge of matches, after a disciplinary saga Down Under in 2007. ‘I got fined A$10,000 (£4,000), for criticising a referee,’ said the Australian.
‘In Queensland, that’s a lot of money, and I had to pay it myself – the union didn’t pay it for me. Since then, I have accepted the fact we shouldn’t speak about referees. I try not to. I’m not perfect.
Vunipola was at the sharp end and after being recalled to the starting XV for the final
‘I’ve said things that probably haven’t been right, but the longer I’ve coached, the more I accept we’ve got to look after the referees.
‘To me, it’s simple. Play the game, the referee’s in charge, if he makes mistakes, accept it, because that’s our game. If we want to have a contest game, referees are going to make mistakes. If we don’t, let’s play basketball or Aussie Rules or football.’
While South Africa will be driven by a misguided sense of injustice, there is plenty of motivation in the England camp too, especially for those players who were on duty in Yokohama three years ago, when a Bok blitz in the scrum saw hopes of global supremacy pounded into dust.
Mako Vunipola was at the sharp end and after being recalled to the starting XV, the veteran Saracens prop recalled the torment he felt after the ill-fated World Cup final.
The Saracens prop has returned from a long spell in Test exile to reclaim the No 1 shirt
‘That game will probably stay with me for the rest of my life, not only because of how we lost but because of how they imposed themselves on us,’ he said. Asked if it was his toughest experience in rugby, the loosehead added: ‘Yeah, definitely, because it felt like, ‘Where do we go from here?’.
‘We didn’t fire a shot. Sitting in the changing room afterwards was tough. You see all the players who didn’t play and how they are so dejected from it, then you start thinking about all the training we did in pre-season and the games we played on the way through.
‘Nothing was said. Everyone was just sitting in silence, and that was when you realised we missed an opportunity, and we’re probably not going to get that opportunity again. It was tough to take.’
For the older Vunipola brother, being picked to wear No 1 and to have another shot at these visitors is a sign of how far he has come since Saracens were relegated and he spent a long spell in Test exile.
Mako Vunipola and Jamie George have been brought into the front row to face the Springboks
Lately, Mako has played second fiddle to Ellis Genge but – as forecast by Sportsmail on Wednesday – he and club-mate Jamie George have been brought into the front row as England seek to negate the fabled ‘Bomb Squad’.
As also predicted in these pages, Leicester scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet retains his place despite struggling against the All Blacks and Northampton lock Alex Coles has been restored at blindside flanker. That means Maro Itoje will stay in the second row.
‘I think we are seeing the second coming of Maro,’ said Jones. ‘At his best, he is the best defensive player in the world. We want to see more of that. There was a basketballer who played for the USA – Kobe Bryant – and all his focus was on being the best defensive player. Maro has that in him.’
Rookie Northampton wing Tommy Freeman has replaced Jack Nowell and Manu Tuilagi will earn a 50th cap as due reward for his resilience through so many years of injury torment.