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Probyn column: Eddie Jones will find Tonga give focus to his men

Tonga

England play their first match of the World Cup today against a Tongan team that will be strong, aggressive and direct but it should be the perfect game for Eddie Jones to start England’s campaign.

The Pacific Island teams play some of the most aggressive rugby on the planet but are always at a disadvantage simply because, by losing so many players to teams across the world, they can never field a first choice team. Not just their star players, but also many of the bread and butter players you need to build and develop a strong international squad.

Unfortunately, the disparity in funding across the rugby world means that unlike any of the Tier 1 nation players, those from the Tier 2 countries playing in our leagues will have to make a choice. Whether to take a massive cut in salary to play for their home countries at the World Cup and potentially lose their jobs, or remain at the clubs to play in our leagues.

The double whammy is that rather than answering the call to represent their country, if they stay and qualify (under world rugby residency rules) they can end up getting paid a small fortune to go to the World Cup and could also play against their own country.

In this current commercial rugby world, the reasons for playing international rugby have become more complicated. Until the game went professional the ultimate achievement in the game was to play for your country. Clubs wanted their players to represent their countries and put no obstacles in the way, in fact encouraging players on the journey to international, but now it’s different.

Less we forget, while the World Cup is taking place, the Premiership, Pro14 and Top 14 are all playing games with the Premiership and Top 14 clubs facing the potential of relegation at the end of the season.

The importance of clubs having a big squad at this time cannot be overstated, particularly as the players competing will be rested after the Cup.

From a club perspective Pacific Island players are relatively cheap to employ until they become residency qualified and are picked as internationals for their adoptive home. Rugby remains one of the main ways Island players can secure a financial future for their families, because of the money a good player can earn in Australia, New Zealand or Europe.

Despite the call from England’s attack coach Scott Wisemantel and World Rugby’s Ceo Brett Gosper, for more tours of these nations, they are difficult to reach and have limited numbers of teams to justify a full blown tour of any single Island, unless combined with an ANZAC tour as England did in 1988 and 91.

As with all things, it comes down to money. Even with sell-out crowds in Fiji’s national stadium in Suva, which holds just 15,000, this will not generate enough money to pay players’ wages anywhere near the level of the club game in Europe.

Also, with player welfare now a major consideration, the call for shorter tours means there is less chance of adding a quick in-and-out Test at the end of a tour as back in the amateur days.

Tonga
Uphill battle: Tonga met Fiji on New Zealand soil in August 2018, Tonga lost 29-19. Getty Images/Dave Rowland

This is a shame as I was lucky enough to go on both the 1988 and 1991 trips and enjoyed the chance to experience playing there, even if it was brutal.

As a side, the Pacific Islands could have been a great place for the Saxons (England A) or the England Counties XV to tour.

When I first suggested setting up the England Counties team while on the RFU Council, it was to play games against Tier 2 nations and be given the chance of discovering our own late developers who had missed out on the professional game.

With both the Saxons and Counties teams currently in abeyance, it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of the RFU to promote either team to fulfil the desires of World Rugby for a tour, particularly if they are prepared to offer some financial assistance.

As for Eddie Jones, he couldn’t have wished for a better game to start England’s World Cup challenge as the Tongans, although not the best of the Pacific Island teams, will bring a level of physicality to the game that will focus the minds of all the players, and bring home the reality of what a World Cup means.

For the Tier 2 nations every game is their World Cup final, they know that at some point they are going home but until that day they have the chance to create an upset and beat one of the big boys.

For our players, playing against a team that has nothing to lose and everything to win, they will need a level of play they have yet to show.

If they can reach those levels of commitment, focus and precision in the games against Tonga and the USA and continue to improve against Argentina and France, this could be the World Cup we have been waiting for since 2003.

Who would believe it, even before the first ball was kicked the World Cup was mired in controversy with Wales attack coach Rob Howley, sent home for allegedly breaking rules over betting.

Rules are rules but I am a bit puzzled why the whole England squad, along with coaches and backroom staff, were given a 20 minute presentation and advised to stay off their phones from an hour before kick-off.

I would have thought those about to play for their country would have been too preoccupied in the hour before kick-off to make a phone call.

JEFF PROBYN

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