By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Less than a year from the Rugby World Cup Eddie Jones’s settled and experienced team capable of winning the tournament exists only in his mind as he deals with the destructive and debilitating reality of England’s domestic game.
Jones named his squad for the November internationals against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia on Thursday and the list of players unavailable would have made a team that could have held its own in the Six Nations.
In their absence he has had to call up no less than eight uncapped players, two who have yet to play a club game all season and recall another — number eight Ben Morgan — whose last appearance in an England shirt came under Stuart Lancaster in England’s ill-fated World Cup campaign in 2015.
Like all international coaches, following the evidence of previous tournaments, Jones believes a World Cup-winning team needs a total of 800-odd caps and settled, balanced combinations in the key areas of halfback, centre and back row.
In an ideal world Jones would be fine-tuning that lineup ready to unleash it against the All Blacks in the teams’ first meeting since 2014 but instead he is scrabbling around with third, fourth and fifth-choice options.
Having arrived saying from day one that his priority was to win the World Cup, Jones was adamant on Thursday that his current travails are mere bumps in the road.
“What I’ve learned about the World Cup is that the only time you need to be at your best is at the World Cup,” said Jones, who led Australia to the final in 2003 and whose Japan team stunned South Africa in 2015.
“All the leading up to it is sparring, it’s practice rounds, getting combinations right. So as long as we’ve got in our head that we know what the team is — and we do — we’ll be alright.
“We want our best guys to be fit for the crux games at the World Cup, which is going to be in the later rounds of the pool (against France and Argentina).”
To illustrate his point the Australian pointed to the experience of South Africa 12 years ago when, amid a dire European tour, coach Jake White was summoned home to be sacked, only to be saved by the intervention of a sponsor.
“They were being pumped every game, then in the 2007 Tri-Nations they win one out of four,” he said. “They then go to the World Cup and what happens? First game it’s 36-0 against England and they didn’t look back,” Jones added — tactfully neglecting to mention his role in the turnaround having joined as an assistant coach before the tournament in France.
Jones said the physicality and dense fixture list faced by the Premiership’s clubs meant he was always going to be losing swathes of his players and has planned accordingly.
“When I took the job on I knew the situation, so this is not new territory, it’s par for the course,” he said. “I can’t be concerned about injury rates because I can’t control that. When I’m finished, my views on the job will be pretty clear but I know what it is and I can accept it.”
Although he said he was excited by the possibilities presented by the new faces Jones accepted the loss of Billy and Mako Vunipola from the series – both from injuries sustained in the same club game last weekend – would hurt.
“We’re going to have to change things around, find a different way to get over or round that defensive line,” he said. “But no, you don’t replace those two. They’re special players.”
So, to most observers, including the judges of the September Premiership player of the month award, is Danny Cipriani, but Jones refuses to buy in and again omitted the flyhalf and declined to reveal his areas of concern.
“People think he played well, well maybe I don’t think he plays that well, and that’s a judgement,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean other people’s judgement is wrong, but at the moment mine is the most important.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Martyn Herman)