Eddie Jones has in his long career never been accused of being diplomatic but since taking over as England’s head coach at the end of last year he has adopted a national tradition: his upper lip has largely been stiff, apart from the odd twitch, but that is set to change in the coming months as his side switches from European skirmishes to battles against the might of the southern hemisphere.
Asked if Saturday’s Premiership final between Saracens and Exeter, which preceded Sunday’s international against Wales at Twickenham, was a duel between the two clubs in the league who best reflected his ambition for England to become an all-weather side, conditioned to play any style of rugby reflexively, Jones fixed the questioner with an incredulous look before replying: “You are joking, aren’t you? I cannot answer that question, seriously, otherwise I will get into a hell of a lot of trouble. You are not getting me down that track. The England squad players in the final had to play as their clubs asked them: in some positions it is significantly different to what we ask.”
Saracens and Exeter stand out from the other leading clubs in England in that they are pragmatic rather than anchored to a playing philosophy, but Jones’s vision of England is a side that is strong in the set pieces and reacts instantly to unexpected opportunities, a fusion of Northampton and Wasps. His training methods are markedly different from the previous regime’s: sessions are short and sharp with no stopping to rectify mistakes.
“The saying practice makes perfect is untrue when it comes to preparing for a match,” said Jones. “A game of rugby is chaotic, not structured. You have to be able to react, make decisions and work out where you went wrong. The old way of training was nice and slow, everything done methodically, but that is finished now because rugby is not like that any more.
“There is set-piece rugby and there is unstructured rugby. To be a good Test match side you have to be able to play between the two. You cannot play at one end of the spectrum or the other. The All Blacks are the greatest exponents of unstructured rugby: when they were a side that won 70% of their games they were down one end of the spectrum because their set piece was not good enough. Now their scrum and lineout are strong, they can play any way and their win rate is 90%. The All Blacks are one of the greatest sporting teams in the world because of what they have achieved. Players have to be able to perform under pressure and learn on the run, fixing what they need to next time.”
Jones has used the absence of his Saracens and Exeter players on Sunday to look at those who were not considered for the Six Nations, such as the Northampton back-row Teimana Harrison, the Wasps-bound hooker Tommy Taylor and the Leicester prop Ellis Genge. He wants his charges to be abrasive, rather than have a nasty edge, and be passionate about representing their country.
“The Australian tour will be hard: we have got three difficult Tests there against a strong squad,” he said. “It will be all hands to the deck and we will separate the men from the boys there. It is not about players having a nasty edge but being desperate to play for England. That’s what I want. Owen Farrell would be top of the tree and George Ford is with him. They are kids who desperately want to play for England and get better. They are the players we want. We are taking baby steps, but significant ones.
“There is no doubt that players have had it too easy and been handed caps. Marland Yarde is a great example. He went on the Argentina tour  and scored a couple of tries, went to New Zealand  and ran over the top of Richie McCaw and then you did not see him for two years. What was he doing? He was not working hard enough at his game and now he is. He has been rewarded with an opportunity against Wales. What is important about training is mental intensity, something people do not much understand. The only time you seriously learn to drive a car is when you are trying to get your licence. After that you drive without mental intensity.
“The idea that to become skilled at something you need to practise for 10,000 hours is baloney. You need to train with a mental intensity that is as high as your physical intensity to improve skill. That is why the southern hemisphere has jumped the north where the game has been stuck in a low, organisation-based training. We have to be able to go from structured to unstructured without blinking an eyelid.”
When Jones took over in December, England had achieved little since winning the 2003 World Cup against his Australia. “Clive Woodward did an enormous number of good things for English rugby but, because he banged so many heads in doing it, they wanted to get rid of him when the opportunity came. All the good he did got thrown out and they had to start from a bare base. We are trying to rebuild that base now, getting all the things that are non-negotiable for high performance and the attitude you need to have, as well as the right people.
“When England came to Australia in 2004, they were there for a holiday. Commercial activity took over for the players who had not retired after the World Cup and the game here has not recovered. England have been successful when they have a group of hard, tough players. We know Wales will come out all guns blazing: what I want from my players is that every time they wear the rose, they give it everything they have got.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010