I’ve got a calendar here and it says 495 days, four hours, five minutes and 23 seconds to the World Cup. We track it very closely.
We started a strategic plan for the World Cup in 2016, not long after I took over the England team. You look at it not only from a logistic point of view but also from a physiological point of view, selection point of view, tactical point of view. You’re putting that all into one strategic plan to get yourself to be at your absolute best for the World Cup when it starts.
Everything is geared toward being at our best for the World Cup. But along the way you have to win games of rugby. You can’t just follow long-term strategy. Sometimes the short-term and long-term strategies conflict but that’s part of the process — knowing when to prioritize the longer term and when to prioritize the shorter term.
For instance, in our games in November last year, we didn’t play Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell because they’d come off the British and Irish Lions tour. We felt we needed to give them a break to ensure that two years down the track, at the World Cup, they’re going to be in as good condition as they can be. So you are always looking to get the balance right.
We would ideally have liked to base ourselves in one place in Japan and then travel to the games, but at the end of the day the World Cup organizers decide where you can and can’t stay. Once they make their decision, you’ve got to follow their decision and come up with the best plan you can.
You can only control what you can control. We don’t control what the World Cup organizing committee does. So we know where we’re going to stay and it’s up to us to come up with the best plan, the best logistics, the best environment for our team to flourish.
I think it’s great for the local community to host the World Cup teams, there’s no doubt about that. Having England in Sapporo, Yokohama and Tokyo is great for the community and great for rugby.
The support of the crowd at any event is important. Our aim is to be the second-best-supported team, after Japan. Everyone loves the All Blacks but there’s no reason why they can’t love us. I’ve got a fairly strong connection with the Japanese rugby community and I hope that will hold us in good stead.
We’ve just finalized our squad for our June tour to South Africa, and we’ve probably got about 20 players unavailable for various reasons. That makes it a challenging tour but it also creates an opportunity for young players coming through. If they show they can handle test rugby in South Africa and continue to improve, they could force their way into the World Cup squad.
In the week before we go to South Africa, we’re setting up our training center to be the same temperature conditions as Tokyo. It will give the players the experience of those conditions. It’s not the same as being there but we’ve got to be able to control what we can control and give our players the best preparation we can.
Everyone likes to keep winning but high performance is not linear. If it was, everyone would do it and it would be easy. It involves crests and troughs, and the ability of a team to get out of a trough quickly is the test of a good team.
Us having a bad patch was always going to happen. We weren’t going to keep winning at 96 percent. No team in test rugby does that. The All Blacks win at about the high 80s. This was always going to happen and it’s how we respond to it that’s the important thing.
Peaking at the World Cup comes down to experience. Experience of the preparation. You want to go into the World Cup with momentum. You want to feel like you’re a team that is improving, not just hanging on.
But you also need to peak for certain games. You have to win your seven games, and within that you have one or two crucial pool games. You’ve got a quarterfinal where, if you’re ranked in the top four as we are, then you’re generally going to be playing against a lower-ranked team, and that’s always a tricky game. And then in the semifinal and final it’s best foot forward. You just have to be able to do it on the day.
Preparation is everything. You’re either prepared to win or you’re prepared to fail. There’s an old quote by Muhammad Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee. He said: “Never go into a fight unless you’re the best-prepared fighter.” It’s the same in rugby.
A well-prepared team can beat a team that’s better physically and athletically. We did that with Japan against South Africa in 2015. If you’re better-prepared tactically, you can beat other teams. When it comes to the World Cup, you have to maximize your resources and that means maximizing your preparation.
Eddie Jones is the head coach of England’s national rugby team. He coached Japan from 2012-2015.