Eddie Jones believes mental fatigue caused by Covid restrictions was a significant reason why the major southern hemisphere nations failed to stay the distance in the autumn series in Europe. Jones, though, has made clear his England side can still improve further and is seeking a fast start to the Six Nations at Scotland’s expense in early February.
Despite New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina all losing their concluding Tests of the year, Jones insists it is premature to start talking up northern hemisphere prospects ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup because of the “problematic” amount of time all the touring teams have recently had to spend away from home adhering to strict Covid protocols.
England suffered a similar dip themselves in this year’s Six Nations and the head coach says he has some sympathy for sides like the Springboks who have played 13 Tests in just over four months. “We are so lucky to play a high-level sport in such a difficult time but given the restrictions of the team environment sometimes it gets difficult for the players,” said Jones.
“You think about South Africa, they have been on the road away from home for at least 18 weeks. That presents challenges. There may be some mental fatigue that gets exacerbated by those conditions. We certainly found the Six Nations as a team very difficult with the restrictions we had in the team environment. That puts another layer on that equation.”
As he prepares to head for France to scout potential 2023 World Cup bases, however, Jones is less bothered about Test rugby’s potentially shifting balance between north and south than ensuring England kick on from their Twickenham wins over Tonga, Australia and the world champions.
“I’m not too concerned about the northern hemisphere,” stressed Jones, whose side’s next fixture is at Murrayfield on 5 February. “The only thing I’m concerned about is England and I know we’re going to be in a better position after the Six Nations because we’ll keep improving. When the coaches have had a bit of a break we’ll start having a look at Scotland and see how we’re going to beat them. It’s the only thing we’re worried about.”
England, who now have the former Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill on their staff, are also looking to pursue the more proactive attacking game that Jones believes is now possible under the slightly tweaked laws. “World Rugby have got three things they are emphasising: speed, space and safety. All those three are coming out … we are getting faster games, more space and a safer game. So it’s all moving in the right direction and the domestic competitions are following, albeit with their own national flavour.
“I think the speed of the ball is creating much more decision making for players and the more practice they get at doing that the better it is for the players. If you look at the Premiership I think the speed of the ruck ball has gone down by approximately a second, and that means defences are less organised. That creates more decision-making because you have got the opportunity to play quicker and flatter on the line.”
Having also picked 23 new players this year, Jones is hopeful the emergence of some quality youngsters will continue to energise their seniors but admits that team building remains an imprecise science. “I was talking four or five weeks ago to a coach who won a major, major trophy. I said ‘What did you do?’ He said: ‘I really don’t know, every team I get I do the same thing. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.’
“We got those young guys together in summer … for some reason there was this chemistry in that group and it just took off. Then you put them back with a few of the established players and again you don’t really know what’s going to happen. But they seem to have gelled really well, they have a nice feel about them. And when you have that nice feel they tend to fight a bit harder. They were able to find a lot of extra petrol in the tank on Saturday and a lot of it we don’t know why.”
As for his French reconnaissance, Jones would love to base his squad near Nice but will also take the chance to chat to people about the steadily-improving national side. “I’ll have a look around France and see what information I can pick up. They seem to be doing some good things. I just send out spies everywhere … we are putting out surveillance cameras in every corner of France we can.”