England got their swagger back against Ireland but have they peaked too soon?

England got their swagger back against Ireland but have they peaked too soon?

February 3, 2019

England’s head coach watched his men announce themselves as potential world champions with a stunning demolition of Six Nations favourites Ireland.

But after this blazing new dawn for English rugby, how can Jones sustain such peak performance levels all the way to the Land of the Rising Sun this autumn?

Four years ago, England kicked off a World Cup year by travelling to Cardiff and pulling off a shock comeback victory over a confident Wales team.

It was hailed as the finest win of Stuart Lancaster’s reign and it left the English dreaming of lifting the Webb Ellis Cup at Twickenham.

Well, we all know how that one ended up.

England, having failed to win the Six Nations, were turfed out of their own tournament at the group stage, thanks to defeats by Wales and Australia.

Lancaster, who’d signed a long-term contract before that World Cup, was out on his ear.

Five of the England players who crushed Ireland on Saturday featured in that victory at the Millennium Stadium — the Vunipola brothers, Jonny May, Ben Youngs and George Kruis.

And head coach Jones, a very different beast to Lancaster, is determined to ensure there is no repeat of 2015.

Jones, who has led Australia and Japan into previous World Cups and was part of South Africa’s victorious set-up in 2007, says the ability to sustain success is becoming ever harder as rugby becomes more demanding.

And you suspect he fears England might have peaked too soon with a comprehensive 32-20 defeat of an Ireland team billed as the only threat to New Zealand claiming a third straight World Cup in Japan.

Jones said: “Having been involved in three World Cups, I know the period that counts to have the team at its best is just before the World Cup.

“It’s very hard to sustain absolute outstanding performance for a long time because the game’s so exacting now.

“What Mako Vunipola did against Ireland — he’s 125kg, big enough to be a sumo wrestler, he’s making so many tackles, carrying the ball ten times, he’s scrummaging and lifting in the lineout…

“The intensity in the game is such that you’ve got to work out when you’re going to peak and when you want to take it off a bit.

“That’s certainly at the back of our minds. But as long as the players keep having that absolute desire to be the best in the world, we’ll keep growing as a team.”

England, who’d finished fifth in a disastrous Six Nations campaign last year, dominated the Irish physically and ran in four tries, bruising Irish pride and swelling their own confidence.

Yet the loss of Maro Itoje with a knee ligament injury which could sideline him for the rest of the Championship, showed how difficult it will be to keep England close to full strength.

And, with the ever-unpredictable France up next at Twickenham on Sunday, Jones is also working hard on their mental resilience.

The head coach revealed he had been studying the way elite performers stay focused during other stop-start sports — with England’s ‘high performance director’ Neil Craig, a former Aussie rules coach, taking  the lead.

Jones said: “If you look at how a Test match is structured, they’re usually about 100 minutes and the ball is in play about 35 of them.  So it’s what you do with those 65 minutes in between.

“It’s like playing golf. Golf takes four hours but you hit the ball for maybe five minutes. Good golfers are good in between shots and in rugby it’s such an important part of the game, too.

“That’s something we’ve been working on with senior players a lot with Neil Craig. We went to Australia to study that aspect and see what we could learn.

“We are practising that pretty hard, the ability to refocus. If you do a positive thing, you can lose focus; if you do a negative thing, you can lose focus. It’s that ability to refocus.”

So focus for 100 minutes and keep on focusing for nine months.

The task is an ominous one but at least the old rascal in the coaches’ box is back to his true self.

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