The Making of New England
The making of new England: from World Cup zeros to Six Nations heroes in five months
In little more than 100 days since arriving in the country, Eddie Jones has made a number of behind-the-scenes tweaks that have put England on the verge of a first grand slam in 13 years.
Just over 100 days have elapsed since Eddie Jones, having overcome his visa issues, belatedly arrived in the UK to assume his new role as England’s head coach. By any standards it has been a whirlwind courtship.
From a standing start he has presided over five successive Test wins, a Six Nations title and the biggest prize of them all to-date The Grand Slam.. No wonder the nickname "Fast Eddie" follows him around.
In virtually every respect the experienced Australian has played a managerial blinder since, fresh off a plane from Tokyo, he sat huddled in the stand at the Stoop to watch Harlequins play London Irish in early December. When people glance down the England teamsheet for the final tango in Paris on Saturday they will mostly see similar names to those at the World Cup last autumn. Behind the scenes and, crucially, between the ears, the contrasts are many and various.
The resurrection has been remarkably swift, particularly given the foundations of the "New England" project were laid in barely three days. In between dashing around the country identifying players and meeting club coaches, Jones and his two lieutenants, Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, shared only a trio of day-long brainstorming meetings at Twickenham and Bagshot before the squad meet up in late January.
"We just tried to get a bearing on how we were going to train and what our objectives would be in each area of the game," Gustard recalls. "We’re trying to change what happened before because it didn’t work." By the time a slightly apprehensive group of players gathered for their first damp training-field beasting, however, Jones was already clear what he wanted.
When it leaked out before Christmas that Dylan Hartley was his preferred new captain it perfectly reflected his mission statement: clean slate, hard forward edge, no pussy-footing around. England’s players would need to be fitter and work harder to be world-beaters.
Easy to say, less easy to achieve mid-season with the stench of World Cup depression still in the air. Even his coaches were unsure how long the transformation would take. Gustard admits he felt some trepidation having departed Saracens for a less secure working environment. "In my head my biggest difficulty was: ‘Will the players get me?’ Would my style of coaching and personality resonate with them? It’s one thing to try and engage them; that’s just the key to the lock. You need to push in the information, too."
With Borthwick having also been prised away from a reluctant Bristol, Jones had plenty of surprises beyond the squad’s fiendish new Tuesday schedule, which involves three sessions shoehorned into one day. Few foresaw England being tutored in the breakdown arts by the former Wallaby great George Smith or learning the ancient art of quick striking from the former England hooker Graham Dawe.
The former England one-day international cricketer Jeremy Snape, now a sports psychologist, has also been a frequent visitor to camp, as has Jonny Wilkinson. Keeping the players guessing is one of Jones’s specialties.
The former Wallaby and Japan head coach pays generous tribute to the tireless work of his predecessor Stuart Lancaster, but also believes too much routine can be counterproductive. The squad have trained at Latymer School and the University of Bath and players are no longer allowed to spend a day off at home in the middle of Test weeks.
They now have an "active recovery day” when families are instead invited up to the team base in Surrey, among other initiatives. "It’s hard to pin it down to just one thing," Gustard suggests. "We’ve had new coaches, the training programme has completely changed, we’ve diversified in terms of where we’ve trained and we’ve had nine new players in the group. There’s been a change in how we’re trying to attack, changes in the evolution of how we defend, how we exit and how we approach the breakdown.
To boil it down to one area would be tough but the amalgamation of lots of one or two per cents can add up to a significant difference. It has been a tough schedule in the past couple of months but we believe this is the right way to try and breed a successful Test team."
If the Scotland and Italy away games were notable for second-half surges, the increasing all-round confidence in spells against Ireland and Wales suggests that Jones’s straight-talking input as backs coach – urging his fly-half to stand flatter, demanding swifter recycling of the ball, backing his playmakers – is not the sole factor.
Placing more faith in Billy Vunipola has been another masterstroke, as has the decision to appoint two further vice-captains in Owen Farrell and Mike Brown. The players’ GPS data, according to the scrum-half Danny Care, also speaks for itself. "If you look at the stats it shows we are a lot fitter than the first week we turned up. The amount of accelerations per minute, the amount of metres per minute you’re covering … the stats have gone through the roof. "
This is a new England, the past is the past and whatever happened in the World Cup happened. Eddie was very clear he thought we had a lot of potential and we’re just trying to unlock that." Diffident players, accordingly, have been teased from their shells; extroverts such as James Haskell have been used to lighten the mood.
Jones’s gleeful gag about Haskell’s handling – "Hask hasn’t got bad hands. He’s got terrible hands" – was a prime example, a flashback to his early coaching days in Australia where he once described the flanker Simon Poidevin as "Venus de Milo – great body, no hands".
To some extent the wisecracking new general has been lucky, too. How Lancaster would have loved Maro Itoje to flower six months earlier, or for both Hartley and Manu Tuilagi to be fit. Winning has also ensured Jones’s occasional press conference excesses have quickly blown over. But then you listen to Gustard explaining how he motivates his defensive troops – "They’ve had all sorts of things: T-shirts, giant Easter eggs, temporary tattoos, all sorts of gifts" – and good fortune stretches only so far.
The Jones regime has refreshed the parts that other management teams could not reach and sought to permit their players some fun. If they do complete the job in Paris, Gustard believes Jones will see it as merely the start. "He’s unbelievably focused on winning. He speaks about winning more than any other coach I’ve come across. Everything is about being the best. He’s all about winning and I think that’s bleeding down through the squad as well."
Eddie’s brave new England? Same as the old chariot, just with go-faster stripes and a noisier horn.
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