Jones will demand relentless pace until the Americans fold
England will want to impose their physical superiority to a level that tier-two opponents cannot match
If, like me, you enjoy the odd game of poker, you quickly discover that when you come up against someone much stronger than you, in a card-playing sense, very few games go the distance. When you play Texas hold ’em, for instance, you have the “flop”, when the dealer turns over the first three communal cards. But it is rare that you actually reach the “turn” or “river” cards, the fourth and fifth communal cards. Why? Because the strong players tend to raise the stakes so high between each round that it is too much of a risk to go with them on the tiny percentage that you get that four of clubs you need for a straight flush. Even if you might have won had it played out, you fold.
It is basically the same in rugby. The stronger teams, the tier-one nations, raise the jeopardy levels to such an extent that the smaller teams cannot live with them. They increase the stakes, although instead of money, they use their superior physical strength and technical superiority.
These days the top teams, when playing against the so-called smaller, tier-two nations, want to make the game as fast and as hard as possible, so that their opponents eventually have to fold.
I have been reading Matthew Syed’s new book, Rebel Ideas, recently. In it, there is a passage about the 1996 Everest disaster and how the decision-making went to pot in the “death zone” above 8,000metres. When you are struggling with cold and fatigue, when your brain is starved of oxygen, you make poor decisions.
The rugby pitch poses similar issues. I do not want to compare it to life and death but instead of altitude, it is speed, it is tempo. Tier-one teams, when they play tier-two teams, want to take them to the summit of Everest. They want to increase the pace, the tempo, the ball-in-play time. They want to get heart rates up above 200 beats per minute. They are far better equipped to operate in those environments.
When it is tier one against tier one, it is usually more of a structured game. When it is tier one against tier two, it is about dragging them into deep water. It can make the game scrappy, especially at the beginning, because the tier-one nations are constantly trying to increase the tempo. Even the best players make errors when pushing too far.
But they accept that because they know, at a certain point, their opponents’ levels will drop. Australia, for instance, were happy to play that way against Fiji last weekend because they knew Fiji would not be able to sustain those levels deep into the second half.
Too many errors, of course, and you lose tempo, the game slows down and you get sucked into a more basic level of game. This is what happened to England against Tonga on Sunday. They gave away 10 penalties and conceded 17 turnovers. The penalty count was just about acceptable, the turnover count not. They were unable to knock Tonga out of their stride and could not get away from their first phase. They had to start kicking.
Eddie Jones will want his side to get back to that high-tempo style against the United States today. Even after making 10 changes to his team, they should be able to do so. The US may be one of the world’s top sevens teams, but are ranked 13th in the world and are light years behind England.
Eddie will want his players putting the US into the red zone. This is what England have trained for, so that they can be explosive in bursts.
If you consider that a game lasts around 100 minutes from whistle to whistle, and of that 100 minutes the ball is in play for 35 minutes, that is about a 2-1 ratio – 35 minutes in play, 65 minutes not in play. For every 20 seconds of work, you have 40 seconds of rest. England will want to make those 20 seconds count, forcing heart rates above 200bpm, where it is about anaerobic thresholds, lactate. At the summit of Everest, when the body is screaming, that is when teams make bad decisions, handling errors, poor communication. That is what makes the All Blacks so special, they can maintain those levels the longest in the most rarefied airs.
Expect to see England trying to keep the ball in play for longer, running their opponents off their feet. If they can do that, very soon their opponents will be in deficit.
Eddie knows that the southernhemisphere teams manage to keep their heart rate higher for longer periods. It is why he made such a big thing about the players not being fit enough when he first arrived. It is why he threw those Haribos at Ben Youngs. It is why you hear the players saying training sessions are harder than matches these days.
The collateral damage is injuries. But you have to go there. That is the game at the top level these days. After the indifferent Tonga performance, it is going to be interesting seeing whether England can impose that fast-paced style on the US today; whether they can make them fold.
At the summit of Everest, when the body is screaming, that is when teams make bad decisions