Aside from the first pictures of Donald Trump inside the White House there was no disputing the week’s most terrifying image.
Those cold-hearted racer snakes lying in wait for young marine iguanas on Sir David Attenborough’s wonderful new BBC natural history series also happened to be an ideal allegory for the treacherous landscape of professional sport. To elude crushing disappointment requires determination and, above all, resourcefulness when it matters.
In many ways that is Eddie Jones’s key attribute; it takes more than a pack of biro-wielding snakes to deter the wily, fast-talking lizard of Oz. Only last year the England squad was swallowed up and spat out of its own World Cup; since Jones took over they have not lost in nine games and shed their old skin of tactical uncertainty. Should South Africa win at Twickenham on Saturday, extending their 12-game unbeaten run in this fixture, it will be a surprise to anyone who has been in and around the England camp in Bagshot this week.
That in itself is a significant shift: the players seem happier and more energised, perhaps as ready for an opening game of an autumn series as they have ever been. As well as their pay rising to around £22,000 per man per match excluding bonuses, the latest deal between the Rugby Football Union and the clubs has permitted the three training camps in Teddington, Brighton and Portugal. Preparation has been intense. RFU insiders say it is not uncommon for some of Jones’s emails to be sent at 3.30am. The England captain, Dylan Hartley, says training is tougher than the actual matches: “You’ve seen the boss and what he demands of us and that filters down. He’s expectant and I think we all are now.”
Given England will kick off with seven of the same starting pack – the exception is Mako Vunipola for Joe Marler at loosehead prop – that Stuart Lancaster assembled two years ago, it has not simply been a matter of reshuffling personnel. The biggest difference, reckons the former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick, is between the ears: “I think Eddie Jones is a very good coach and he’s shown that,” said Fitzpatrick, now a board member at Harlequins, who face NZ Maori at the Stoop on Wednesday. “He’s got the best out of a group of players that hadn’t performed. It’s about their mental attitude. The goal now is whether they can go to the next level and be No1 in the world in three years’ time.”
That is indeed the six million dollar question – or whatever sum that is worth in sterling nowadays. Jones is allergic to complacency – “If we lose against South Africa the only thing they’ll be asking me is: ‘What time does your flight leave?’” – but the central struts of his grand design are increasingly clear.
From the outset he has urged English players to reconnect with their powerful forward heritage and recalibrate what previously constituted absolute dedication. He also wants them to be leaner, meaner and more up-front. His one-to-one meetings with the squad in the Algarve, conducted on a public terrace, resembled a speed-dating convention: a couple of minutes of “have you done what I told you last time, mate?” before the next victim was ushered in. He likes a character, correctly judging that they enhance the collective mood, but making every player a little bit better is his obsession. Hence the judo and the recent arrival of no-nonsense Australian operatives such as Jason Ryles, Melbourne Storm’s defence coach, and the squad’s new conditioning guru, Dean Benton, previously with the Wallabies. Hartley says Jones is constantly on at him “to make small, incremental changes” that will extend his top-level career.
That may be as simple as doing more stretching exercises or cutting a fraction or two off the time it takes to rise from the floor and get back in the defensive or attacking line – one of Jones’s key selection criteria. There have already been judicious carrots dangled in front of resurgent senior players – Hartley, James Haskell, Chris Robshaw, now Tom Wood – with younger colleagues reminded there is no such thing as the finished article. As Jones observed this week: “A lot of young players are like shooting comets. After a while they have a bit of a fall because you can’t keep going like that. Then it’s about how quickly you rebound.”
Jones’s other conspicuous talent is his razor-sharp eye for rugby’s latest trends. “Talk about openside flankers is irrelevant in the modern game,” he announced on Thursday. “Someone once asked [the former Springbok coach] Jake White if he’d pick an openside and he said the only thing a fetcher is good for is getting the beers. You need players from 1-15 to contest the ball and make good decisions.”
Playing nine-man rugby on a wet day – and rain is forecast for Twickenham – is equally outdated against good sides. “You have to be able to move with where the game’s going. You can’t play just strangulation rugby any more and win high-level Test matches. Every law that comes in now is about making the game more dynamic: faster, more skilled. You shouldn’t have to have numbers on their backs. I think 11, 14 and 15 will change their roles considerably going forward. It’s the same with 6, 7 and 8.”
As so often he is spot on, just as he put a precise finger on South Africa’s needs when he was employed as a consultant to work alongside White and the current South African head coach, Allister Coetzee, before the Boks’s 2007 World Cup success.
He and Coetzee got on well – there was much hilarity whenever the latter was asked to translate White’s impassioned team-talks – and the results were impressive. “I just tried to add finesse to what they did,” shrugs Jones. “When I went there the house was already painted. I was just filling in spots for them.”
The England house does not look too shabby either, unless the absence of the injured Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Haskell, Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and co means the hosts start sluggishly against a colossal Bok pack. Jones is unfazed – “Saying it’s going to be physical is like saying that table is brown” – and motivation is not an issue. “We are a team that have got a goal under Eddie to be the best in the world,” said Hartley, sick and tired of never having beaten the Boks. “The Irish wrote their own history last week, the Chicago Cubs wrote their own history, now we want to do the same.” Keep climbing up Jones’s ladder and those nightmarish World Cup racer snakes will fade further from the memory.
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