English rugby has over the years developed a reputation for a Roundhead attitude, but it is the round ball that is inspiring Eddie Jones as the national team’s head coach looks to build on this year’s grand slam success and oversee a fundamental change in playing style.
Jones recently spent time with the Chelsea manager, Guus Hiddink, whose previous jobs include a spell with Australia, and before the end of the season he hopes to visit Arsenal’s London Colney training ground and tap into the knowledge of the longest-serving manager in the Premier League, Arsène Wenger.
“I talked with Guus Hiddink about coaching and managing players and it was the best hour I’ve spent,” said Jones. “I’ve always wanted to meet him because I like the work he’s done. We had a cameraman when I coached the Wallabies who had worked with the Socceroos and he told me how he operated. He only had the team for 100 days and he turned them around. Then he did that job with South Korea where he took them from nowhere to come fourth in the World Cup.
“You are always learning about coaching, just trying to pick up little bits and pieces. I always try to meet people who’ve got more knowledge than me and I want to try to get into Arsenal over the next couple of weeks. I like the way Wenger’s teams play, a really positive style of soccer that’s skilful, so there could be a lot to learn. He’s been there 20 years and the average length of tenure is 18 months or even less, so he’s 10 or 12 times above the average.”
Jones, who watched Hiddink’s Chelsea take on Manchester City on Saturday, is particularly interested in how football has evolved into a reactive game where players are quick to sense, and exploit, an opportunity. “Rugby is far ahead in terms of strength and conditioning, but football has changed so that there is no longer an obsession about formation. Players might start in positions, but it is no longer what shape you play, but how you move in relation to the speed of the ball and what the defence is doing. That is the way rugby is going.”
These are heady days in England six months after the despair of the World Cup. A first grand slam in 13 years has been followed by three Premiership clubs reaching the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup for the first time since 2007, but that is just a beginning for Jones as he charts a course to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, anticipating not just a change in personnel in the coming years but a more fluid style of play.
“The professionalism of the English clubs is absolutely outstanding, and we’re seeing that in the European Cup,” he said. “They are much better prepared sides than the rest of Europe and they are being prepared to play a high-collision, high set-piece game, which is what they need to do in Europe. That is the game in the northern hemisphere, and at the World Cup, but there is another part which is that highly unstructured, multi-phase, ball moving, continuous rugby.
“You can’t expect English clubs to condition their players for that because they don’t need to be good at that. That’s the bit we have to add when we get them. It’s not a criticism of the clubs: it’s about what they’ve got to do and what we’ve got to do. We have to use every minute when we are in camp to get the players to play a different sort of rugby.”
England have a three-Test tour to Australia in June preceded by a friendly against Wales at Twickenham at the end of May, a game that will not include players who are involved in the Premiership final the previous day. He will take no more players Down Under than he needs to so that he can have time with each one during the trip.
“We are taking a small squad so that all the players who go know they have a good chance of playing,” said Jones. “When you have 40 players, you do not have enough time for one-on-ones. Players get lost. If one player gets lost, he gets unhappy. He grabs the player next to him and he’s unhappy. It’s like a rotten apple in a basket. Everyone knows they have to work together.”
Jones is spending the next few weeks, along with his coaches Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, looking at players. The Northampton flanker Teimana Harrison, who followed the England captain, Dylan Hartley, from New Zealand to England, the land of his father, is being considered as an option on the openside, but a player talked up by Jones after the grand slam, the Exeter centre Henry Slade, now has some impressing to do.
“We will be looking at Harrison closely in the coming weeks and he was good against Saracens last week, combustible,” said Jones. “I will not be seeking Dylan’s opinion because they are good mates: never talk to players about selection because they’ve all got their mates and they will tell you about the ones they like.
“There are a few guys in the frame and we have to be looking for better players. There are a couple of really good young players I would have picked, but they will go with the Under-20s. It is hard to judge Slade at the moment as he is playing in a hybrid 12/13 position for his club, not quite sure whether he runs or passes. When I saw him playing against France last year I thought he had real talent, but for me to make a judgment at the moment about whether he is a Test player is difficult.”
Danny Cipriani’s prospects of a recall look remote after he found himself on the front page of a tabloid again and having to answer allegations about his personal life. Cipriani has been in the cold since Jones took over at the end of last year. “I saw the headline on Danny Cipriani and did not want to read it,” said Jones. Asked whether it affected what he thought about the Sale outside-half he replied: “Not really, but when a guy keeps doing the same thing over and over again you have got to question it. All I want to do is see him play some good rugby.”
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