In Eddie Jones’s mind the race to win next year’s Rugby World Cup is similar to a classic steeplechase. “In the Cheltenham Gold Cup there would probably be Ireland and France, nose and nose, just in front. New Zealand and South Africa would be one and two back and we’re just behind that. But we’ve got a tight rein on at the moment so we’ve got plenty to go in the last 400. Can you see the vision?”
Few would dispute his assessment of a tightly bunched field but, as Jones is well aware, the key for his England team is how fast they can accelerate up the hill between now and next September. His first training squad of the season offered a few pointers but, because of injuries and temporary unavailability to others, his formal autumn squad announcement on 17 October will be a better selectorial gauge.
Whoever is picked, though, Jones is more preoccupied with working on how his side think under pressure. Recent months spent watching an intriguing Rugby Championship and a hectic opening to the Premiership, have further emphasised to him that a well-grooved Plan A, on its own, is not enough for sides with lofty ambitions.
He was particularly struck by the recent National Rugby League game between his old favourite team, the Rabbitohs, and their Sydney rivals the Roosters. “They had eight sin-bins, five HIAs [head injury assessments] and five of the eight tries were scored by the undermanned team. This is the sort of landscape we’re going into.”
Factor in the increasing number of breaks in play: “It’s a poor part of our game at the moment – there are just too many stoppages,” and it is Jones’s belief that coaches and players need to become more flexible than ever.
“Probably 25% of the game now is uncontrollable, through sin-bins, HIAs and uneven numbers in the game. So we need to be able to adapt to the game that’s going to be played in that time. That’s hard. There are not too many teams in the world who can do it. In fact, I can’t name one at the moment. So there’s a great opportunity for us.
“We’ve got to get the right balance of people, skills and mindset to lead the team into what’s probably the most volatile rugby environment we’ve ever seen.”
Which is why Jones was in California this month to study how the US Navy Seals train. Rare is the rugby coach who name‑checks Osama bin Laden in the same breath as improving his team’s skills but Jones has been learning how the American special forces reacted when disaster threatened to strike at a key juncture in their mission in Pakistan in May 2011.
The helicopter carrying the Seals was meant to hover over the compound to allow the troops to descend to the ground by rope. In the event the helicopter’s tail struck the top of the compound’s perimeter and ended up crash‑landing on its side.
“I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days out in San Diego with the Navy Seals and understanding how we can prepare the players better to cope with the unexpected. It was fascinating. They practised that whole Osama project for 12 months. And the first thing they did was wrong. But then they were able to cope with it and get [the mission] done within 38 minutes.
“So you look at the analogy with us now: 12 months to the World Cup, we’re planning for a game that’s got 35 minutes’ ball in play. So the ability to dress-rehearse, prepare the players for what’s coming up, whether it’s the first, second or third round, is the opportunity. Exciting, isn’t it?”
Whether France, Ireland or New Zealand will appreciate being effectively likened to the founder of al-Qaida is for another day but Jones is clearly on the lookout for players who can react to adversity better than England did in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final in Japan when Kyle Sinckler was forced off early.
With that in mind he is planning what he describes as a “mini-hell” for his squad when they head to Jersey next month to limber up for the autumn Tests. The players will also undergo another “misogi”, a variation on the Japanese practice of ritual purification, to put past campaigns behind them in readiness for the new.
The net result, Jones hopes, will be a squad ready for anything, just as he himself had to be as a young teacher in inner-city Sydney. “We used to have to take the kids to the park at lunchtime and teachers would have to go and pick up syringes. I remember working there for three months with no pay.”
While he feels huge sympathy for everyone at stricken Worcester as they attempt to battle through their own period of intense hardship, his eyes remain firmly fixed on the big prize. “I never went into rugby to be happy. I went into rugby to build a good team, play good rugby and to win.”
Uncertain world or not, some things never change.