Eddie Jones: ‘When England show togetherness we are powerful’

Coach believes finding ways of playing with greater urgency can shrug off any World Cup hangover

Eddie Jones was not at his most accommodating at this week’s Six Nations launch, his patience frayed by the barrage of questions about salary cap-breaching Saracens and the impact their presence in the Championship next season would have on England. Eventually the head coach snapped when asked about the notoriously “grim” training sessions he put his players through.

“That is a ridiculous statement,” said Jones, now in his fifth season as England’s head coach. “I do not think the players find the camps grim. If they do, they do not have to come. Give me their names and they won’t have to bother coming.

“Test rugby is hard. You think we stroll around the park and have a ham sandwich? Of course we train hard. Come on.”

Jones’s face is rarely without a smile at media conferences, even when he is grinding his teeth or shaking his head at an inquisitor, enjoying the sparring, but here it was as if he were bracing himself for a root canal.

“Can we have a question about rugby?” he had implored after another question about Saracens, or the “taboo subject” as he called it.

England, after reaching the World Cup final last autumn, swatting aside the holders, New Zealand, along the way, are the favourites to win the Six Nations. They did so in Jones’s first two seasons in charge but, unusually when the Australian is holding court, tension was sucking oxygen from the room and he even bridled at an innocent question about the previous four championships that followed a World Cup year ending in a grand slam, later apologising.

Earlier he had said Steve Borthwick, the forwards coach for the previous four campaigns who has been switched to skills after the arrival of Matt Proudfoot from South Africa, had been charged with overseeing the way England trained. “His role will change significantly. He will be skills coach and [work on] special projects; he has already been looking at a couple of areas. We need to change the way we train, to do it better and he will come up with various ways of how we can do that.”

England’s first match is in Paris next Sunday. A year ago Warren Gatland, then in his 12th and final year as Wales’s head coach, predicted that, if his side won in Paris on the opening night, the title would follow. They did and it did, but Jones, as always, is taking it one match at a time, not even concerning himself with the end of the year when world rankings will come into play for the 2023 World Cup draw. “We need to make sure we learn from the World Cup,” he says. “What are the mistakes we do not want to repeat? What are the areas we need to keep doing?

“The boys probably need to have a chat about the taboo subject. Then we need to get on with playing rugby. We will have some periods off the field where we enjoy each other’s company. And some good tough training.”

The most interesting of Jones’s coaching reshuffles is the appointment of Simon Amor as attack coach. A consistent failing of England since winning the 2003 World Cup, and it sometimes surfaced in that tournament, is a slowness to react when a gameplan is not working, undone by predictability. Amor has a Sevens background, a format that ensures players have to be alert for opportunities.

“We want to keep improving our attack,” says Jones. “Whether we can do it quickly or over a period of time is something we will judge. We have gone through a big defence cycle in which rush defence and line speed have put pressure on the way people attack. There has been a certain way that people have developed their attack and we want to find a new way of doing it. Simon has some ideas but we have to speak to the players and get them involved in working out where we can evolve.

“Most teams are playing off a lot of slow ball now. We want to find ways of creating quicker ball to put more pressure on the opposition. One of the key stats in winning in Test match rugby is your running metres. They mean you have momentum and we have to find ways of getting different momentum and getting in the opposition’s 22 as quickly as we can and once there how we can convert that to points.”

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England did not have to worry about their attack in Jones’s first Six Nations campaign, in 2016, winning the grand slam as the most sober of sides suffering from a World Cup hangover, but the semi-final victory over New Zealand demonstrated what they had become capable of. “We showed in the World Cup that when we have togetherness we are a powerful team: we have to work hard off the field to make sure that we still have that.”

It is that step into the unknown keeping Jones on edge. Will the seven Saracens players he has chosen be fully focused on England given that, some of them at least, will have their club future to sort out, for next season if not this? Will the saga allow rancour to seep into a squad that, unlike the three previous tournaments, was united in Japan? Or will he sweat any division out of them?

Keep working hard, Jones says, and England can become the greatest team in history. The stuff of fairytales – of the Grimm variety.


Paul Rees

The GuardianTramp

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