Eddie Jones will lead England into battle at Murrayfield on Saturday confident that his side can secure the victory that would maintain their quest for a third successive Six Nations title under his guidance. However, he has not always felt so assured on the journey from London to Edinburgh.
Two years ago he travelled to Scotland to take charge of his first match as England coach. His side won 15-9 that February day en route to the Grand Slam, but first impressions had not been good on their Australian coach.
Confidence within the camp was low following the team’s disappointing pool-stage exit from the home 2015 Rugby World Cup, and their fitness levels were even lower. “I remember after the first training run,” Jones said on Thursday. “I was thinking ‘Goodness me what have I got myself into here?’
“They 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’.”
Jones has access to hundreds of hours of footage of training sessions and gym work that has been carried out since he succeeded Stuart Lancaster more than two years ago.
He returned to his iPad ahead of Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash in order to gauge exactly how far his squad has come in that time. In their quest to become the No. 1 side in the world, England are being trained to peak in the final stages of games.
Energy levels were certainly tested during the 12-6 defeat of Wales at Twickenham earlier this month, and Jones believes that his squad are now 40 percent fitter than they were when he took over. Naturally, though, he believes there is another 20 percent improvement that can be made before the next World Cup.
“I was massively surprised how quickly they changed,” he said. “It is hard for good players to change and it is a great credit to the players that they have been able to accept that they needed to change and they have done that.
“Now we are moving in right direction, how quickly I don’t know, but we are moving in the right direction.”
Jones added: “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 practice it. We practice it now too.”
England captain Dylan Hartley cannot remember Jones’ first session in charge vividly, but he can recall the feeling that things would need to change. “Eddie said ‘You may be able to run and lift but can you get back off the floor?’,” he said.
“[Being] fit for purpose for rugby, that’s what he instilled. The programme here has driven rugby fitness. We’re better rounded to play rugby now.”
The extra accent on conditioning, with sessions timed by a large clock that doesn’t necessarily follow convention, has resulted in a squad that remains confident of victory even when a game might start to look lost.
“We train above peak game intensity,” Hartley added. “Last week I think we trained at our highest intensity, so while we had a weekend off we pushed ourselves bloody hard and when you’re working that hard with your teammates you take confidence from it.
“I’ve got confidence in my teammates that when the going gets tough we’ll come out the other side.”
Hartley will become England’s second-most capped player when he runs out for the 92nd time, surpassing Jonny Wilkinson in the process. Only Jason Leonard, who made 114 Test appearances in the famous white shirt, has won more.
“It’s one of those things that whenever I finish I’ll maybe look back on and think: ‘that’s good’,” Hartley said of the accolade. “But the main thing is the team performs and wins this weekend and to be a part of that.”
Jones added of his captain: “[That] is very typical of him. He is not driven by personal milestones.
“Dylan has given the team leadership — we are evolving a group of players under him that are assisting him, that is our growth area going forward.”