If Eddie Jones’s players live in perpetual fear of what he may think of next, they should discourage him from taking field trips to the mountain stages of the Tour de France. Jones flew in from Barcelona on Tuesday with a big grin on his face, having witnessed miles and miles of Pyrenean torment, while devising ever-higher standards for his England team.
“It’s quite incredible,” he said of the endurance of the Tour cyclists. “Just the toughness of the riders and what they do. They’ve done that nine days in a row. So they’ve got recovery today, and they’ll ride for an hour and a half. To recover. That’s professional. We’ve done some good things in rugby, but there’s still a long way to go.”
One can almost hear the sigh of England’s players as they contemplate the next stage of their master’s plan. They have only just completed their own Alpe d’Huez of a season, a 12-month slog of outrageous twists and turns, and are “recovering” in advance of the next onslaught, this one peaking with what another famous taskmaster, Jim Telfer, once described as the rugby player’s Everest. The schedule for next season’s Lions tour – to New Zealand, no less – is just about as brutal as any dreamed up yet.
Jones cannot take the credit for that twisted conceit but after watching the cyclists he has no truck with the idea rugby players should be shielded from exhaustion any more than they already are. The good news is that England’s climb back up the world rankings has been predicated on that holy grail of the sporting universe, the ability to perform effectively while in the grip of fatigue.
By way of illustration Jones pulls up the final 20 minutes of each of England’s three Test wins in Australia. England won the last quarter of all of them. “The third Test was quite interesting. We were playing away from home and it was eight penalties to nil to us [in the final quarter]. That is what won us the series. Giving away a penalty and not giving away a penalty is a decision. We made good decisions at the end of the games.
“It’s what we were talking about with the Tour de France. Those guys go up that first slope for 45 minutes – it was tiring enough driving up there – and then they’ve got to keep going for another four and a half hours. That’s not physical toughness, that’s mental toughness and our guys exhibited that in that third Test, which was really pleasing.”
Jones is less pleased with other aspects. He describes England’s lineout in the second Test as “terrible” and the defence in Tests one and three left much to be desired, but even that newly developed mental toughness will be subject to further work.
“You’re never there,” he said. “It only takes one thing to change, one person to come into the squad and change the dynamic. So it is something we’ve always got to be aware of. Complacency is always around the corner.”
There will be new faces in the 45-man Elite Player Squad to be announced in October. The Saxons won two matches in South Africa in June, while the under-20s swept all before them on the way to another Junior World Championship. Jones predicts that two of the latter will be fast-tracked in October. He will not say who, but Harry Mallinder must be close.
Not that he can expect to be waved in. He would appear to be one of those Jones considers a candidate for stick treatment, rather than carrot. “He’s definitely not a 10,” is Jones’s first observation. “He’s probably a 12 but he is going to have to get a bit more robustness about him. He’s only a young lad, and I’m sure he can do that.”
Nathan Hughes now qualifies and is seen as a No6. Ben Te’o impressed behind the scenes on tour but the Sam Underhill question – the 19-year-old Ospreys flanker is based in Wales and is thus ineligible for England selection due to the RFU rule on players based outside England – remains unresolved for now.
Whoever comes in will have to adjust to the thinner atmosphere Jones is determined to push his players into. The improvement since the nadir of the World Cup is obvious but that is not a cue for comfort. “We are definitely fitter but we’re nowhere near as fit as we’re going to be for the World Cup in 2019, which is the great thing for us.”
It will be great for those who watch, at least. For those at the sharp end, it means further discomfort, which Jones pinpoints as the defining quality of a professional sportsman’s existence. The pain for those eyeing a Lions tour next summer, or even redemption at the next World Cup, is only just beginning.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010