After 2½ years of planning, England finally gets hands on NZ

TOKYO (AP) — England’s players only began thinking about their Rugby World Cup semifinal match against New Zealand when the final whistle sounded on the defending champions’ win over Ireland on Saturday night.

For Eddie Jones, the planning began 2½ years ago.

The England coach figured after the pool-stage draw at Kyoto’s State Guest House in May 2017 that his team would come across the All Blacks at this stage of the competition.

It has made the last few days fairly straightforward for Jones.

“We’ve trained a little bit less, done a little bit less tactically,” Jones said Thursday. “For 2½ years we have been building up a game to play New Zealand, so we don’t have to bring a lot of new stuff into our game this week.

“There’s a certain sort of game you have to have to play against New Zealand, and certainly we have tried to incorporate that into our tactical armory. We were confident enough to think we’d make the semifinals, so we feel like we are well prepared for the game.”

A veteran of four World Cups — he coached his native Australia to the final in 2003 and then guided Japan in 2015, and was a consultant with the Springboks in their title-winning campaign in 2007 — the 59-year-old Jones has a wealth of experience to deal with huge matches like the one approaching on Saturday.

He said his job was to “minimize the stress for your players and allow them to be free, allow them to have a clear head.”

It explains why Jones has thrown so many barbs at the All Blacks this week in three separate sessions with the media, including accusing someone of spying on his team’s training session on Tuesday.

“It’s always good to have a bit of fun, isn’t it?” a smiling Jones told a packed news conference at a Tokyo hotel near the city’s Disneyland resort.

So, he was asked, was it all mind games?

“How do you define mind games?” Jones responded.

His incendiary remarks this week were an example, it was put to the Australian.

“Then maybe we are having mind games,” Jones said, laughing.

He has tried everything to pile the pressure on the All Blacks in public. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, he has been texting New Zealand counterpart Steve Hansen.

“I’m chuckling away,” Hansen said earlier Thursday, “and I get a text (saying), ‘How you going, Steve?’ ‘I’m going fine, thanks Eddie.’ He’s laughing, I’m laughing.”

The serious business for Jones this week was selecting a team to take on New Zealand, and telling eight players in his 31-man squad they would not be involved in England’s first World Cup semifinal match since 2007.

The headline selection was the return of flyhalf George Ford to the starting lineup, which moved captain Owen Farrell to inside center and meant Henry Slade dropped to the bench.

Thirteen players in the England squad were part of the British and Irish Lions party that earned a 1-1 series draw against the All Blacks in 2017.

“I think if you have experienced that before you understand what you have got to prepare yourself for,” Jones said, “and most of our squad have been involved in those games so we’ve got great experience.

“They know what New Zealand’s going to bring to the game and they have practised this week to be equipped for it.”

Ford wasn’t one of those 13, but he believes he knows what it will take to beat the world’s most celebrated rugby team.

“We are going to have to be on our toes,” he said, “and alive in every moment of the game.”