Jones wants at least 20 of his players on Lions tour
➤ England head coach working with Red Bull to take analysis into a new dimension in an endless quest for improvement
England coach Eddie Jones says that the squad for next year’s Lions tour to South Africa could contain at least 20 of his players. The biggest contingent previously was the 20 England players called up for the ill-fated 2005 series in New Zealand which the tourists lost 3-0. But Jones (left) has challenged the current England players to give Lions coach Warren Gatland a selection headache. The England coach has also promised greater co-operation with clubs in terms of workload on players he calls up.
Eddie Jones bristles at the very suggestion that he could use one of his autumn games to experiment with team selection. “The last experiment I did was about 39 years ago, when I was 21, in biology,” the England head coach said. “I remember opening up a rat. Coaches don’t experiment.”
This coming from a coach who moved openside flanker Tom Curry to No8 and once positioned Billy Vunipola in the midfield so Joe Cokanasiga could pack down at the back of a scrum.
In truth, Jones has a magpie’s eye for bright, shiny things, whether that be players or trends within the coaching world. What he resents is the notion that he hands out Test caps like confetti – despite calling up 135 players to England squads in five years – and especially that he could be swayed by public opinion.
That may spell bad news for Wasps flanker and turnover machine Jack Willis, who has appeared to many to be the standout player since the Premiership’s resumption. “There are a lot of good back rowers around and there’s a lot of good competition,” Jones said. “The law interpretation favours good, contesting back rowers and he’s one of a number of good players.”
Selection is naturally a subjective matter. What occupied much of Jones’s thinking during lockdown, which he predominantly spent in Japan, was how to make it more objective through the use of data. According to Jones, rugby data comes in three forms: the live experience, sitting in the stands when he will typically be paying attention to only one or two players the entire game, a video replay of the match and the raw statistics.
This third area is where rugby lags significantly compared to football, which is why Jones has been in conversation with the Red Bull sporting empire. Arguably no football club have played the transfer market better in recent years than RB Leipzig.
Using a central database, shared by sister clubs Salzburg and New York, Leipzig have recruited players such as Chelsea forward Timo Werner and Manchester United target Dayot Upamecano on a relative pittance before selling them on for huge profit. With the Rugby Football Union also sponsored by Red Bull, Jones has been able to speak to Thomas Stoggl, the head of research and development at its athlete performance centre in Salzburg. They had planned on collaborative testing and assessment exercises before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. “Red Bull have done really well and they’ve been quite innovative, particularly in how they recruit players based on the information they collect,” Jones said. “So we are going down that track. One of the things that is important in that area is being able to finance the research, so we are dealing with that.”
Jones’s frustration is that metrics within rugby, such as tackles made, metres run and passes, will reveal only a snapshot of a player’s impact on a game. “Take Mako Vunipola, probably one of the best looseheads in the world,” Jones said. “He carries the ball 15 times a game. His longest carry is probably three seconds. So he has the ball in his hand for 45 seconds. So for 79 minutes and 15 seconds he is working off the ball – and we don’t really have any metrics to measure the effectiveness of his movement off the ball.
“What we are looking at is if there is any opportunity to collect data that is meaningful in terms of giving feedback on more effective movement off the ball. It is a big project. We will keep investigating.”
Jones and the RFU have also been in touch with the England and Wales Cricket Board as well as cycling’s Sir Dave Brailsford about how to maintain a biosphere for the mooted Eight Nations tournament.
This week, Jones and his newlook coaching group are leading some sessions with Championship side Ealing Trailfinders. Jones says it has acted as crucial preparation for the autumn series.
“We’re a very young group,” Jones said. “We need to improve our level of coaching and Ealing is an opportunity to do that.”
Cutting edge: Eddie Jones has taken on ‘big project’ to gain an advantage