Eddie Jones recalls wondering “what have I got myself into?” after presiding over his first training session as England head coach.
Murrayfield hosts the next assignment of the champions’ NatWest Six Nations title defence, with tomorrow’s Calcutta Cup match against Scotland transporting Jones back to the setting for his maiden Test as Stuart Lancaster’s successor in 2016.
A remarkable sequence of 24 wins from 25 matches has ensued, elevating England to second in the global rankings, but the Australian has revealed that the opening days in charge were alarming.
“After the first training run – I had a look at it on video the other day – I was thinking, ‘goodness me, what have I got myself into here?’” Jones said.
“The players weren’t fit. They wanted to play a system of attack, a system of defence and I thought, ‘this is going to be hard work’.
“After 20 minutes they were just shot. They couldn’t run any more. The basics of Test rugby is physical conditioning. You’ve got to be fit enough to play.
“And when you win games, as we have consistently in the last 20 minutes, part of it is fitness and part of it is tactical nous.
“How many games have you seen the All Blacks win in the last 20 minutes? Plenty and that’s because they practise it. We practise it now too.
“I was massively surprised how quickly the players changed. It’s hard for good players to change so it’s a great credit that they’ve been able to accept that they needed to change and have done so.
“We’ve been looking at a bit of data and conservatively we’ve improved 40 per cent. Conservatively – and we’ve still got another 20 per cent to go.”
Apart from improved conditioning, Jones believes it is England’s growing expertise at winning critical moments when games are finely poised that has provided their greatest stride forward.
“They’ve learned how to play winning rugby. They’ve learned to develop a mindset to find a way to win Test rugby. They like winning,” Jones said.
“Test match rugby is about winning, it’s not about entertainment. If you want entertainment, watch Super Rugby.”
Captain for all but one of England’s Tests under Jones has been Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker who will become the nation’s second-most capped player behind Jason Leonard when he eclipses Jonny Wilkinson’s mark of 91.
“Dylan is not driven by personal milestones. He has given the team leadership. He has accepted and understood the responsibility more,” Jones said.
“It is a 24-hour job, you can never switch off. You have got to be on it.
“You have got to be watching; if they are stretching are they stretching properly? You have got to be looking at the players’ behaviour because ultimately it is his team.
“When they run out at Murrayfield on Saturday he is the only one that controls that team.”
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend has accused England of repeated offside in defence while second row great Doddie Weir views the champions’ dismissal of Murrayfield as “arrogance”. Jones, however, has refused to engage.
“They have brought out every strategy you can think of,” Jones said. “It’s designed to get them up for the game.
“We’re up for the game, regardless of what’s said.”
England team to face Scotland at Murrayfield tomorrow (4.45pm kick-off): M Brown (Harlequins); A Watson (Bath), J Joseph (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), J May (Leicester); G Ford (Leicester), D Care (Harlequins); M Vunipola (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton, capt), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), M Itoje (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins), N Hughes (Wasps).
Replacements: J George (Saracens), J Marler (Harlequins), H Williams (Exeter), G Kruis (Saracens), S Underhill (Bath), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), B Te’o (Worcester), J Nowell (Exeter).