There is nothing new about the observation that rugby is a game of increasing power but, if we await the point in history when modern players have wrung every last morsel of actuated power from their jacked-up bodies, that longed-for plateauing-off has yet to be reached. The size of players reached that stage more than 10 years ago. There are signs it may even be falling. But the power of them, the sheer power, continues to escalate.
To watch Eddie Jones wrestle with this conundrum is poignant. England’s coach is, by rugby standards, small of body and large of brain, but there was almost a despairing tone to his musings this week as he announced his latest squad, which will gather on Richmond Hill on Sunday evening for a three-day camp.
All the more poignant, given that not so very long ago – well, the 1980s anyway – that same body of Jones’s, albeit 40-odd years more youthful, belonged to a first-class front-row forward. Now, as the brain cried out like Captain Kirk for more power, the 1980s seemed a very long way away after all.
A word cloud of Jones’s musings this past week would feature “Leinster”, “Manu Tuilagi” (a lot), “Joe Cokanasiga” and “Henry Arundell”. Jones cited power, pace and guts as the holy trinity of international rugby. Arundell, the new sensation from London Irish, scores highly in the second category and sufficiently in the first. Jones watches with interest to see how he rates in the third.
Being of Pacific island descent, Tuilagi and Cokanasiga are rich in pace and power. Both return from injury, with Tuilagi’s comeback particularly cherished. If Jones is calling for more power, his favoured source is of little secret. “It’s a struggle,” he says. “If you haven’t got the power to win collisions, you’ve got to find another way and I can tell you that’s bloody hard. If we don’t have Manu, we need to find another way.”
Leinster were the other phenomenon regularly namechecked. While English clubs give up their England players for this impromptu camp, the serial champions from Dublin march on another European final. Jones is deeply impressed. It will not be lost on him Leinster more or less equals Ireland, bar perhaps a sprinkling of Bundee Aki to enhance the you-know-what quotient.
Jones no doubt envies the Irish setup, describing how the England staff are having to find ways to collaborate specifically with Sale’s to work on the Tuilagi question, while Ireland’s best players play so regularly together with Leinster in a coherent structure. “I know you’re sitting there thinking, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but the World Cup camp is the only time we get the players together for three months. We’ve got a real chance to change them. The game’s going to demand that.”
Jones discussed how the game is changing in other ways, some of which feed into the premium on power. The amount of dead time in a game is stretching beyond the hour mark, he claims, which has huge repercussions for when the ball is in play. Far from lessening the premium on aerobic fitness, Jones reckons it exacerbates it. Again he cited Leinster and their “repeat power” game, able to launch themselves into fresh plays time and again, as if at the start of the match.
The depth of international competition continues to develop. Jones reckons that anyone down to Fiji, under Vern Cotter, at No 11 can beat anyone else, with even Italy mentioned, possibly making a move from lowly 14th. It makes for a delicious prospect at the World Cup next year in France – unless you are an international coach.
The general capacity for upsets is further fuelled by the introduction of the red-card lottery. “In the last 20 years that wasn’t something you really had to worry about and now you do. You can lose a player now for unintentional play. We have seen that. I am not saying that is wrong, but it is the way it is.”
He might not be able to say it is wrong, but the incidence of red for unintentional acts is yet another ingredient heightening the sense of a game out of control. The lunacy of the policy, in the context of escalating power and collision rates, will do nothing for coaches’ peace of mind and still less to lift the shadow of CTE.
Gum-shield technology, of the sort used by Harlequins and Gloucester, is already telling us that 30% of an elite match’s collisions are direct to the head, while more than half of the cumulative impact as experienced at the shaken brain is from blows that do not involve the head at all. Quite how picking out the odd collision as worthy of red is meant to change any of that is a question for the “strategists” who came up with it, five and a half years ago.
Eddie Jones has acknowledged that rugby may not be as open an environment for LGBT players as it could be, but he maintains the sport is moving in the right direction.
After Jake Daniels became the UK’s first male professional footballer in 30 years to come out as gay, Jones noted the lack of an equivalent in rugby. “If you look at 20 international teams,” he said, “and you’ve got 30 players in each squad. If there’s not a gay player in those 600 players it’s probably not following the proportion of what happens in the world. So if they’re not coming out maybe the environment is not open enough. We [in the England squad] just try to have a good engaging environment. We want the players to be themselves.”
Men’s rugby has its high-profile representatives of the LGBT community, but few among the ranks of active professional players. The Australian rugby league player Ian Roberts was a pioneer in the 1990s and Gareth Thomas became union’s most high-profile player to come out as gay, in 2009, towards the end of his career. But in 2019 Israel Folau, the dual-code Australia international, quoted from a text a couple of thousand years old to set rugby’s reputation back in this area.
Jones thinks the sport is on the right track. “I would say the attitude of a rugby environment towards racism and discrimination has changed considerably. In a very positive way. If we can keep driving that, we’re going in the right direction.” Michael Aylwin
Strategising towards effective ends must remain the preserve, it seems, of successful coaches. Jones has enjoyed his fair share of success in a long career, as well as of disappointment. As the power and mania ratchet up for his final year in charge, a leafy haven in south-west London is where his next moves will be plotted this weekend.