With no England rugby match for seven months, coach Eddie Jones has had quite a bit of time on his hands during the coronavirus pandemic.
He has spent a couple of days working with second-tier club Ealing — “There’s no other teams to coach, mate!” Jones said on Tuesday — and attended some Premiership games since the league’s restart in August to check on the progress of his England players.
Otherwise, it’s all been about planning for the eventual return of the international game amid a pandemic and Jones is discovering quite a lot, on and off the field.
Firstly, he has followed closely how sports teams have coped with living in a “bubble” — notably the England men’s cricket squad and teams in Australian rugby league — to give him a handle on how he should deal with his own players.
“The main thing is that we understand the responsibility we have got,” Jones said in a video call ahead of England’s return to action for a game against the Barbarians on Oct. 25 and a trip to Italy in the final round of the delayed Six Nations. “We’re the England rugby team, we’ve been given the opportunity to play rugby in quite a difficult situation, and our responsibility is to make sure we put a smile on people’s faces. I anticipate every player coming in will be committed to that.
“But like every other young man around the world at the moment, they have discipline issues and we want to minimize them — but I can’t guarantee that we won’t. We’ll certainly be striving to be a very disciplined team.”
That goes for on the pitch, too.
Jones is a keen all-around sports fan, and has noticed how the number of goals being scored in English Premier League football has soared this season in empty stadiums. Three weeks ago, there were 44 goals in a single round — a record since the Premier League began in 1992 — while 41 were scored last weekend.
With no crowds being allowed at England’s rugby games for the foreseeable future because of government-enforced restrictions, does Jones envisage a similar deluge of points in his sport?
“I’m not sure,” he said. “But what I see in sport at the moment is that sides who are getting beaten lack a bit of fight. So you get an exaggeration of scores. And maybe the reason you don’t get much fight is because they don’t see the consequences of defeat as strongly as maybe they would if crowds were there.
“The big thing for us is to work on our togetherness. On how hard we are going to fight for each other. I think the other common feature is sides who have that togetherness, and that fight, stay in the battle when the crowd would give you a reminder to do that. You have to remind yourselves now.”
The biggest thing for Jones is being able to do his job again, with England’s most recent match coming way back in March in the next-to-last round of the Six Nations.
England selected a 28-man training squad — featuring 12 uncapped players — that will convene for three days this week in preparation for the games against the Barbarians and Italy. Jones said his players will not be allowed to leave their hotel to reduce the chance of communal infection.
However, because players from six of the Premiership’s 12 teams were unavailable for selection because of league commitments, the final squad for those two games should look very different.
Italy is the big one for England, with a heavy win in Rome likely to secure Jones’ team a first Six Nations title since 2017. England is tied for points with France, whose last game is against Ireland on the same day, but ahead on points difference. Ireland is four points back in third place but has two games left, starting against Italy on Oct. 24.
“We will be picking the best 23 for every game,” Jones said. Does that involve picking some young guys coming through? "It probably could, but we are going to pick the best 23 for every game.
“It is our responsibility to put a smile on everybody’s face. I know when people smile in England, it’s when their side wins, so our No. 1 priority is to win, our No, 2 priority is to keep evolving the squad and make it stronger.”
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