Team night out and an array of leftfield training drills provided perfect preparation for England’s best display of coach’s tenure
After a performance such as England’s in Dublin on Saturday there is always the temptation to look back on it in the context of history. Their best under Eddie Jones? Without doubt. The best on their travels since Clive Woodward’s days? Quite possibly.
How, then, was it that England reached such high standards for all 80 minutes? They have flickered plenty under Jones – think the start to the South Africa series last summer – but in terms of totality, this was something else. Was it Irish hubris? English power? Having both Vunipolas on the pitch? There is never just one answer but of those that immediately spring to mind, a fact-finding trip to Australia and a night out in London would most likely not be among them.
Both, however, reveal plenty about the leadership Jones is instilling within his squad. He has often talked of how England have lacked in that department and without Dylan Hartley or Chris Robshaw in his squad, it looked a potential concern in the buildup to the Six Nations, making Owen Farrell’s thumb injury all the more of a worry. It is little surprise then that while Jones refused to place Saturday’s victory in any sort of bracket, he waxed lyrical about his senior leaders, or what Billy Vunipola calls “the generals”.
Key to that, according to Jones, was a night out organised the day before England went to Portugal for their training camp last month. “The senior players organised a night out and didn’t get into trouble which was fantastic and isn’t always the case when you’ve got 30 guys going out and having a drink,” Jones told the BBC. “They wanted to go into the camp ready to go, have some stories to tell and have some togetherness. We believe that is so important.”
And what of Jones’s excursion down under? What particularly pleased him about the match on Saturday was how England stuck to the gameplan, as well as their “ability to refocus”. Jones reckons that Tests often last around 100 minutes from first whistle to last, with the ball only in play for around a third of that. What his players do for the other two thirds was the focus of his trip to Australia, where he worked with Ric Charlesworth – a former cricketer, hockey player and coach – and spent time visiting Australian rules football teams as well the Melbourne Rebels (Super Rugby) and Melbourne Storm (NRL). He likes a cricket analogy – and a suitable one may be a batsman maintaining concentration between deliveries – but on this occasion Jones chose golf to illustrate his point.
“Golf takes four hours but you hit the ball for maybe five minutes,” he said. “Good golfers are good in between the shots and now in rugby it’s such an important part of the game that you have to be good in play. That’s something we’ve been working with the senior players a lot on with [England’s head of high performance] Neil Craig. We went to Australia to study that aspect particularly and see what we could learn. If you do a positive thing you can lose focus, if you do a negative thing you can lose focus. It’s that ability to refocus.”
Mako Vunipola – singled out by Jones for his outstanding performance – gave an idea as to how England put the theory into practice against Ireland with their relentless defence. “There were breaks in play when we just came in together,” he said. “Mark Wilson was like, ‘Oh boys, you’ve gotta love this,’ and to be fair it was tough, but one of those enjoyable moments.”
It may be a word of encouragement from Wilson, whose yeoman qualities continue to enhance England, or as Jamie George explained, the clarity of thought to execute the lineout move that led to Jonny May’s opening try. Throughout the match it was notable how often England would form a huddle – they did so shortly before kick-off and within two minutes May was over for the visitors’ first try in Dublin in eight years. George threw the ball over the top to the onrushing Manu Tuilagi to catch Ireland cold before May was released down the left: a moment of innovation executed perfectly.
“It was good analysis,” said George. “We saw that if you get Manu into that crease it would potentially get us good go-forward to go off the back. It was clever. Steve [Borthwick] spends all that time on a laptop looking at footage, we just have to execute it.
“We wanted to do things on our own terms. When we wanted to increase the tempo, we did. When we didn’t, we slowed it down. Towards the end of the game that got taken out of our hands, having a lineout with one and a half jumpers against the best lineout defence in the world is difficult. We had to huddle and come up with a plan and think on our feet.”
It was also a result of practice. England trained in Portugal with soapy balls to improve their handling while George and the rest of the hookers could be seen throwing at Borthwick as he stood atop a stepladder.
“Imagine doing it with a soapy ball in midweek,” said George. “It is nice for it to have come off, when you have practised something over and over again.”