One of the key elements that Jones has focused on is the fitness of his squad. In particular the pack.
The fitness that Jones requires is entirely different to the fitness regime of the England squad in 2015. The fitness of England in 2015 was abysmal. After their World Cup training camp in Denver, they didn’t look sharp, fit or conditioned. They looked slow, lumbering and incredibly lethargic.
Their Chief Instructor was an ex Royal Marine. And as fit as the Royal Marines are, their training is geared much along the lines that my military training is. Carrying heavy loads over long distances at high speed. This was also combined with heavy weights and traditional strength training to hone their obvious size advantage.
Whilst this is a way to get very fit, which I can attest to. It doesn’t get you rugby fit.
They seemed to train for endurance, rather than intensity. The hours spent doing traditional lifting and gaining mass backfired. It slowed them down. When the games went to a higher tempo in the World Cup, we saw how they struggled, how they unraveled.
This wasn’t just mental fragility, it was confusion about how they wanted to play. As they grew more and more exhausted their decision making went downhill, and they panicked.
One of my military heroes, Dick Winters, the famous Major of the 101st Airborne Division, stated that in order to be successful in combat one of his key tenets was to “stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness”. This has a pass over to rugby in more ways than can be stressed.
The All Blacks
Imagine how the All Blacks feel at the end of the game. When they’re 10 points down at 76 minutes.
First, they know they need two scores as a minimum. Second, they see the opposition exhausted, but still defiant, willing to give everything.
What would give you the better frame of mind? Feeling as exhausted as the opposition are, and with the exhaustion letting doubt and hopelessness kick in? Or fired up, knowing you still have more in the tank and if you can run them off their feet, the gaps and chances will come?
There is no better example than the All Blacks vs Ireland game in 2013. I met Steve Hansen last year at a coaches meet and he stated that if they’d focused on the scoreboard they’d have lost the game. Instead, they focused on their processes, backed their fitness and won the game. A game they near had no right to win.
The All Blacks know that no team is fitter than them, this adds to their mental fortitude. They know they can go toe to toe with teams, keep in the hunt for 60 minutes, and then outstrip them in the last 20. If the game is already won in the first 60, even better.
The way they do this is by taking the game to another gear. This, in turn, demands a higher intensity form of fitness. A very highly focused cardiovascular and anaerobic fitness emphasis. This is something that Jones has remedied quickly.
To state how badly England were conditioned post-2015 you only had to listen to Jones in an interview given in 2017.
When asked how he rated England after the World Cup when he first got hold of them, he stated; “Very poor mate, very poor, I couldn’t believe it, you expect teams like England to be better than Japan and that wasn’t the case. They’d go 20 minutes and have to stop they were so exhausted”. This was in reaction to his training regimen. A regimen that is focused on highly intense, short sharp sessions with 20-second water breaks.
In the early days, they used to be up at 6am every morning for a long run to boost their aerobic capacity. Then they would run their intensive and anaerobic training with their game run-throughs.
Dean Benton, the former Broncos, Wallabies and Brumbies strength & conditioning coach was brought in to assist Japan in the lead up to the 2015 World Cup.
I highly recommend watching the videos of “The Japan Way” on Youtube. In it, you’ll notice all are focused on high intensity, low weight movements. This helps to generate all-round strength and explosive power. This has been brought over to England.
Their ball carriers now have a 20-minute session where they run up a 3-storey flight of stairs carrying 30kg sandbags on their shoulders. This isn’t traditional lifting, but it is more relevant than traditional training methods employed previously.
The transfer of running up and down stairs like this to the rugby field is excellent. A polar opposite to squatting huge weights. Powering through a physical barrier with high-speed legwork when your lungs are bursting and the lactic acid has built up is more in line with a game scenario. It teaches players to keep going, to power over the line and to generate momentum far more than huge weights.
Benton prior to the 2015 World Cup
In an interview before he joined England, Benton stated this in regards to a pioneering approach:
“On a national level, Japan’s rugby program in the lead into the 2015 RWC was exceptional. It was amazing to be part of. Eddie Jones’ coaching and performance systems with Japan were 4-5 years ahead of the rest of the rugby world. Rugby union is still a long way off exploiting all possible performance edges. Japan pioneered and show-pieced new performance paradigms at the Rugby World Cup. It would be scary to see a rugby union superpower like South Africa or England adopt these methods systematically”.
Jones has taken this one step further with experts in Judo, Cycling and American Football being part of his entourage. And this is THE reason England are looking so much fitter in the last 20 minutes of games.
The fitness that England now have is simply to get them to a place where they can play at a speed and level that no other team can match them. For over 80 minutes.
This transfers over to the gameplan in obvious ways.
Remember the Tenets of England’s attacking play:
- Players are on their feet as soon as possible in attack and defence, presenting themselves as options in attack or back in the line preparing for the next assault.
- Players must always be moving, presenting as many options to the defence as possible so as to manipulate and break down their systems.
- Re-positioning of the forwards within their pods must be faster than the opposition can realign to gain the advantage.
- Players are generating quick ball in phase play at such speed, that the defence are still retreating to their defensive line whilst we are already a quarter to halfway through their next phase attack.
- Players are playing flat to the line, making decisions as late as possible so as to keep the defence guessing until the last second.
Ask yourself, can the fitness requirements needed to execute the gameplan be fulfilled with the equivalent of weighted jogging over the course of 3 hours, combined with strict strength sessions?
Or highly intense, targeted exercises geared to generating explosive power, functional strength, speed and the ability to maintain a highly aerobically taxing metaphorical sprint, that overwhelms the opposition?
You can probably guess which works better. Not only in the physical preparation but which approach conditions the players to think clearly and keep their heads under pressure?
England’s framework is key to generating the space available for their backs to work out wide. This is why England are so keen on their forwards being able to get into their structures quickly. Getting up, sprinting into the 1-2-2-1 with clear heads and not being exhausted from the effort. Whilst the opposition is.
This is all part of England’s plan going forward. To fatigue the opposition, overwhelm them with power and speed, with the end result of scoring a try or forcing the opposition into mistakes.
In the next article, we will discuss a summary of England’s attack that encapsulates the whole series thus far, and the use of kicking in England’s attacking game.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.