'Someone could say something to them on the way to the ground'
With less than a year to go until the Rugby World Cup, England coach Eddie Jones is trying to formulate a group of players who can think for themselves in what he expects to be a maelstrom of on-pitch distractions during the tournament in France.
Jones named his latest training squad on Monday ahead of November Twickenham games against Argentina and Japan – who they will face in the Pool stage in France next year, New Zealand, their potential semi-final opponents, and South Africa.
Discussing his selections the Australian said that the current state of rugby, with multiple yellow cards, injuries and TMO interventions now becoming the norm, is delivering new challenges and is something he is factoring in to his player choices and coaching sessions.
“We need to be able to adapt to a different game – probably 25 per cent of the game now is uncontrollable, through sin-bins, HIAs (head injury assessments) and uneven numbers in the game,” he said.
“The match then becomes completely different. We need to be able to adapt from our game to the game that’s going to be played in that time. That’s hard to do and I can’t name one team who can do it at the moment.
“We basically can’t get messages on the field any more so the players have become even more important in terms of decision-making.
“We want to create a game that plays to our strengths, but if the game changes and we need to play a different one the 15 players on the field all have different ideas on how to fix it. We need to get a leader – or a group of leaders – who can influence those players to immediately go into a slightly nuanced variation of the game we normally play.”
Critics of England in recent seasons have highlighted exactly that inability to change on the hoof, to find a way to put the brakes on a charging opponent or alter their own approach when seemingly on the wrong side of the referee.
Owen Farrell was a captain who seemed to lack the ability to work with referees and though he remains an absolute first choice player for Jones, the Australian seems likely to continue with Courtney Lawes as his captain after his calmer approach appeared to pay dividends in the summer series win in Australia.
Jones said that recognising and playing to your own strengths while being ready to adapt to changing circumstances has become his most fundamental coaching challenge.
“The other thing we’re seeing, and will continue to see, is that difference in the referees’ interpretation of the breakdown that can decided whether it’s a highly contestable game or a fluid game,” he said.
Refereeing interpretation arguably has more impact on rugby than in any other professional sport and Jones recognised that learning to deal with them was a key aspect of game management.
“Referees are like humans, you have an idea of what they’re going to be like, but they can change,” he said.
“I’m sure you’ve all got a husband or a partner who says something, or the dog’s done a pooh on the carpet. You wake up and have this vision of it being a perfect day then you think ‘shit, this is going to be a terrible day’.
“Referees are like us. Someone could say something to them on the way to the ground so we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
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