England head coach Eddie Jones insisted that it would be foolish to write off his side’s chances of a third successive Six Nations title after announcing his squad for the championship opener against Italy.
Shorn of 13 players through injury and suspension, Jones has named eight uncapped rookies in his 35-man party for the showdown with the Azzurri in Rome on 4 February.
Despite conceding that this squad was one of the toughest he has ever had to put together, Jones refused to bow to the view that Ireland’s chances of Six Nations glory eclipse those of England.
The success of Irish teams in European club competition and their structure of centrally contracted players, compared to the shared club-country English system, has led to suggestions of Ireland being the team to beat.
“If you read the papers, then we might as well not turn up. I don’t even know why we’re having this press conference,” said Jones sarcastically.
“Ireland are dominating Europe, their sides are going well. They have this central contracting system that allows them to have their players at their peak. As you’ve seen, we’ve got 13 players out, so we’ve got no hope.”
Jones then changed tack, adding: “I’m not a bookmaker but I know we have a squad that’s good enough and that will work very hard and maximise the ability we have and put us in a position to win the Six Nations.
“I’m excited by our prospects, particularly as we have been written off. No one thinks we can win the Six Nations so we have got an opportunity to hunt the other teams down."
Props Lewis Boyce and Alec Hepburn, flanker Gary Graham, No8 Zach Mercer, full-back Harry Mallinder, wing Nathan Earle, hooker Tom Dunn and fly-half Marcus Smith constitute the uncapped contingent of the squad.
And Jones, who this week signed a two-year extension to his contract which will tie him to the England job until 2021, was adamant that whatever team he selects against Ireland at Twickenham on 17 March, or for any other fixture, is capable of delivering.
“You can only put 15 players on the pitch and those players have got to play with heart, passion and pride,” said the Australian.
“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what system you have, it’s up to the quality of the players you put on the field. If I say ‘yes, they’ve got an advantage’, I’m saying we’ve got an excuse. We don’t have any excuses.”