The last time England’s rugby players came out to Portugal to prepare for a big game against South Africa was in 2007 during the brief reign as head coach of Brian Ashton. It was an odd period with varying opinions on the best way forward, not least from within the dressing room. England, then as now, had injury concerns and ended up losing 36-0 to the Springboks in Paris.
They did, admittedly, bounce back to face the same opponents in the World Cup final but Eddie Jones, as he made clear in the Algarve sunshine on Monday, wants a different result this time. England’s failure to beat South Africa for a decade has been nagging him and the latest list of knocks to key forwards is not about to distract him from his overriding priority.
Nor is Jones about to waste time tiptoeing over the bruised feelings of Premiership clubs upset by the body count the last time they released their players to England for a short camp in Brighton. There is to be more judo, the subject of some heated debate last time, supervised by Kate Howey and JP Bell, and a lot more heavy-hitting training field work under the eagle eye of Jason Ryles, the defence coach of rugby league’s Melbourne Storm who have made six of the last 11 NRL grand finals.
Jones was at pains to make clear his existing defence coach, Paul Gustard, has not been superseded but, equally, he wants England to leak fewer tries than they did in their 3-0 series victory in Australia. Ryles, consequently, has been hired “for a couple of weeks” to crank up the intensity.
“We want to bring that harder edge to our defence,” said Jones. “I think he’ll make a hell of a difference. To beat the Springboks we need our defence to be absolutely brutal. We want it to be one of the trademarks of the team in every game, not just sometimes. There are certain technical issues we can learn from rugby league and Jason brings those.”
Never mind, to borrow Jones’s phrase, that England already have a “plethora” of injuries and are shedding back-five forwards like autumn leaves. Courtney Lawes remains a significant doubt for the South Africa game with a knee problem and several other players, even before they submit to their latest training ground ordeal, are banged up following the weekend’s Premiership games. The prop Mako Vunipola has had to stay at home for treatment on a hip problem and will not be able to train before Thursday.
A disrupted flight to Faro also delayed the arrival of other squad members on Sunday and Jones is now having to contemplate a reshuffle to his back-five plans if his last sighting of Lawes – “He looks like a mummy at the moment with taping from his toe to his hip” – is any guide. The problem is the lineout, one of the few areas of enduring Springbok strength, and Jones concedes that, in the absence of George Kruis and Maro Itoje, pairing Joe Launchbury with the hefty Dave Attwood “is probably not the right sort of balance”.
It might be more feasible if a lineout expert such as Tom Wood plays at openside, with the alternative being a first full cap for Bath’s Charlie Ewels or Sale’s Josh Beaumont, who plays his club rugby at No8. Hence Jones’s insistence that Lawes is not yet a total goner and bone bruising on his knee could heal. “At this stage we’ve got 33 players here and none are less then a 50% chance for the South Africa game,” said the head coach.
Whatever happens England are going to need strong on-field leadership, which Jones remains confident his incumbent captain, Dylan Hartley, will supply. Having cheerfully accepted an invitation to describe Hartley’s captaincy persona – “Winston Churchill!” – he reiterated that the Northampton man remains a pivotal figure. “Dylan is the captain of the side and, when he is fit, he is going to play. Every facet of the game now involves a decision. You need someone to oversee that and that’s where the captain is so important. They are like an army. You still need a leader … you still need someone at the front.”
The keynote message to South Africa – “We shall fight them on the beaches of the Algarve” – may need amending, however, if his Churchillian captain suffers any fitness setbacks. Hartley also needs no reminding Saracens’ in-form Jamie George is around to push him all the way.
“We’ll see if Dylan is ready at the end of the week,” said Jones. “We’ll have a good week’s training so we’ll know where every player is in terms of how ready they are to play international rugby.” Given the Springboks current woes, another 36-0 defeat feels unlikely.
Meanwhile Martin Haag has resigned as England Under-20 coach barely four months after guiding his team to the junior world championship title. The former Bath and England forward, who joined the Rugby Football Union from Nottingham, assumed the role only at the end of last season.