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Jones wants Tour to help England go the distance

Eddie Jones is back at Twickenham. The silence and calm in the surrounds of England Rugby’s fortress that is now his home is in contrast to the craziness of the Tour de France in the Alps where he was following the race five days earlier.

It is Tuesday. The England coach is seated in the bar of the Marriott Hotel at Twickenham Stadium drinking green tea. After a sip, he smiles, shakes his head and says of the Tour that finished Sunday: “It’s one of the best events in sport.”

Jones is still feeling the rush of his two days at the Tour to follow stages 18 and 19 with the Australian Orica-Scott team.

Make no mistake; Jones was not there for the thrill of it.

He got enough of that last year when, after his first visit to the race in the Pyrenees, he referred to the experience of following the race in the mountains in a team car – cycling’s coach’s box – as: “Like being in a James Bond movie.”

The aim this time for Jones was about looking outside of the box for what could be gleaned by him that might help his England team improve and win the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

That he returned to the Tour indicates he found something valuable the first time and believed he could find more. Jones, whose coaching career has taken him to Australia, Japan, South Africa and England, does not waste time.

For him it is all about coaching rugby … always has been.

Notwithstanding Jones’ love and immensely private appreciation for his family, since suffering a stroke in 2013, he has taken stronger embrace for the coaching opportunities that have come his way.

In a career that saw the former Randwick hooker who was schooled at Matraville Boys High School go from Australian rugby’s summit of coaching the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup final (lost to England) to being cut from the same job by the Australian Rugby Union in 2005, his well documented return to where he is now is a remarkable story.

For all the highs and lows, the former schoolteacher’s coaching career showcases the value of learning from rights and wrongs and perseverance.

Jones, 57, who may have polarised many a player and official in his early coaching days, is a far better coach now. And while just as studious in his commitment to the game, he is also more open to new ideas and sensibilities, too.

Hence, he visits events like the Tour to find an extra edge; if not for his players, for him and his understanding of people. And, with a view to the Tour, what stood out most for him was the ability of athletes to go far deeper than they know. In an interview there for The Sydney Morning Herald, Jones told me that his visit to the three-week race was all about “finding ways of how you can get athletes to give a little bit more when they are fatigued mentally and physically. No one knows how hard you can push yourself, particularly in rugby.

“The intensity of the game is increasing. No one knows how far you can go. We want to be the team that finds out.”

At the Tour, Jones was struck by the willing and fight of 170 or so riders to attack, chase, struggle to stay in the pack or re-join it while bloodied and battered after crashing – and all amidst the circus of hundreds of thousands of screaming fans within arm’s reach (or less), and for three weeks.

Likewise, with how riders coped with the mayhem around them before and after stages every day as they rode through throngs of fans and media while heading to and from their team buses. Jones wants his players to be able to handle all those physical and mental stresses that can come from all angles and at any moment in a game, especially in the last 20 minutes when the All Blacks’ trademark strength kicks in.

But on Tuesday, as he reflected on the Tour, it was clear that he has drawn more from his second visit to the Tour.

Don’t fret. There was no inkling of him getting his players in Lycra, onto bikes and hurtling around London in pelotons, but more that he will be looking for his players to take ownership of their challenges and responsibilities; and, if anything, feed off a pack mentality to push themselves to new unforseen limits collectively as much as individually.

Anyone who knows Jones will know that he pushes his charges hard … really hard. Perhaps none so more than his Japan side that beat the Springboks in their 2015 World Cup opener and won three of the pool games. Ask Jones and he will still say they were the fittest team he has ever coached.

He wants England to not just match that level, but surpass it; as England or any team will have to if they are to beat world champions All Blacks.

But Jones is not pursuing the quick fix programme that some coaches implement to get their win-loss ratios back in favour.

Jones, for all his experience, knows the risk of injuries that come with such a conditioning programme. Hence, he believes the conditioning he wants will come from a steadier foundation that builds towards the World Cup, one that can be influenced by the subtle influences of what he can glean by looking outside the box as with his visit to the Tour.

He is quietly confident that the programme is already tracking well after almost two years in the job as England head coach.

England’s impressive record under him aside – that being 19 wins and one loss – he rated as one of the more “pleasantly” surprising developments being England’s two-Test tour to Argentina in June during the British and Irish Lions tour.

With 16 England players in the Lions squad, Jones aimed for a 2-0 series win. But with a squad that included 18 uncapped players of whom eight were 20 years old or younger, he did not downplay the challenge against the full-strength Pumas.

That England won both Tests (38-34 and 35-25) and did so by ‘winning’ the last 20 minutes of each Test added valuable weight to his satisfaction. He suddenly had a greater player pool to draw on, and even better players who had seized the opportunity by not just winning but, most importantly, by ramping up their intensity in the last 20 minutes of each Test.

The value of the confidence that such inexperienced England squad can take from that against a full strength Pumas is huge for Jones as the 2019 World Cup approaches.

Jones warned England players on the Lions squad before their tour that there was no guarantee that their places would be there when they return. Some of them will miss the November Tests for understandable rest, but Jones is also set to cut some on form, judging by what he said on the Tour.

“We looked at those Tests in Argentina very seriously as we did the Lions Tests,” Jones said at the Tour when asked about the selection cases by players on the Argentina and Lions tours. “Some players promoted themselves. Some players demoted themselves. That will all come out in the wash.”

Little wonder then, that Jones will look at the November Tests against Australia, Argentina and Samoa as a “continuation” of the June series. While selections may end up being seen by some as a reward to those in his Argentina touring squad he wants to see more of, it will inevitably bolster the depth of his player pool against more opposition.

For that England’s World Cup hopes should be stronger for it.

RUPERT GUINNESS

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