England players will not be allowed to mix with the public during their upcoming autumn programme, with Eddie Jones aware that it will put an increased mental strain on his squad as they operate within their own bio-bubble.
Twenty-seven of the 28 players selected by Jones for this week’s training camp met up at Twickenham’s Lensbury Hotel on Tuesday, with Northampton’s Piers Frances unable to join after testing positive for Covid-19 on arrival.
It may have been day one of what is a nine-week schedule, but immediately the impact of coronavirus was clear to see. The fact that England are in Twickenham, rather than their state-of-the-art Pennyhill Park base, is to ensure they have the space to socially distance themselves from others - though in their absence Gareth Southgate’s England football squad have made themselves at home in Bagshot despite having a larger 30-man squad.
But the issues ahead are far more than just physical ones. This week’s three-day training camp will be repeated next week, before Jones enters the first of six game weeks in seven weeks that ends in early December. The prospect of spending that much time cooped up in a hotel, no matter how nice, with the only chance to leave being on game day is not one to look forward to, which is why the Australian has elected to split the schedule into three blocks where players will be able to go home and spend time with family, firstly after the Italy trip at the end of the month and then again after the game against Ireland on 21 November.
It is incomprehensible that the England squad won’t be affected by coronavirus throughout the autumn, but Jones does not want any of his players to view the next two months negatively.
“The main thing for us is that we understand the responsibility that we have got,” Jones said. “We are the England national rugby team. We have been given the opportunity to play rugby in quite difficult situations. Our responsibility is to make sure that we put a smile on people’s faces.
“I anticipate that every player coming in will be committed to that. But like every other young man around the world at the moment, they have discipline issues. We want to minimise those discipline issues but I can’t guarantee that they won’t happen. We will certainly be striving to be a very disciplined team.
“They will understand their responsibilities but as young men, we all make mistakes. When you are in your twenties and thirties, sometimes you make mistakes. We have seen coaches of 75 years old make mistakes in the NRL, so none of us are exempt from it. It’s going to be a constant driver to be as good as we can be in that area.”
There have already been coronavirus protocol breaches across football, cricket and rugby league, which is perhaps no surprise what is being asked of professional athletes right now. The chance to compete is a blessing, but it comes with great sacrifice. Jofra Archer may have been the young man to fall foul of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s strict protocols during the cricket season, but he also spent 87 days tucked away in their bio-bubble, with just nine days of rest during the 14-week slog of a summer.
Players admitted afterwards that it was much harder than what they expected, while the ECB provided a confidential phoneline for anyone who found themselves struggling to cope with the isolated feeling of being locked in an environment where the rest of the world was forbidden. Although the details remain private, it’s understood the help line was utilised.
The subject of mental health takes far more prominence this week after Joe Marler’s revealing interview this week ahead of the release of his new autobiography. That the England prop has struggled with mental health issues in the past is no secret, having withdrawn from the 2016 tour of Australia and deciding to retire suddenly in September 2018, before reversing the decision ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
But what was shocking to read was just how low Marler sunk at the worst times of his depression. The Harlequins forward is very much the joker of the England pack, loved by teammates and hated by rival fans, but this week he revealed how that has been his tool to help cope with the hard times. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it works.
Marler also described Jones as the most supportive coach he has had in the game, although the loosehead prop is unlikely to feature this autumn after undergoing a procedure on a knee injury. But for a man with such a relentless reputation, Jones will need to draw on all of that human experience to look after those under his watch when they need it most. His approach appears to be through tough love with a reminder of the opportunity that they have before them, albeit with the provisions to support anyone who finds themselves struggling.
“The circumstances are a bit different and we need to be aware of that and take it into consideration of how we structure the team environment,” Jones explained.
“I think younger people and older people at the moment are experiencing the greatest anxiety. And we will make sure we have the necessary support.
“But they also have to understand how grateful they should be for their opportunity to play for England and play sport at the top level. The world is in a difficult situation and they have a great opportunity to play rugby and represent England and I expect them to be full of beans and ready to go. If they need supporting then we will make sure they have the right support for them.
“Joe is an intriguing character and he brings a lot of value to the team. He is an enormously good teammate. We have seen him at times personally struggle a bit and what I have enjoyed about him the most is his honesty, his frank honesty in him being able to say where he is at that moment and what he needs.
“Most of the time we have been able to accommodate that. Sometimes, as we saw with the Australian tour, he wasn’t in a position to tour and we couldn’t accommodate him and he couldn’t accommodate us so we gave him a break. I hope that he overcomes his knee injury and he is back in competition for an England squad. That’s our hope for him. And I hope his book sells well.”
Helpfully, energy drink sponsors Red Bull have come to the rescue by installing a new games lounge at the Lensbury Hotel, complete with a putting green for those who are used to utilising Pennyhill Park’s nine-hole private parkland course. “If I was 30 years younger I’d go in there, but I feel a bit old walking in,” laughed Jones, but the hope is that it won’t be as needed as it seems.
“The big thing is that the players make their own enjoyment,” he said. “Togetherness is about the players driving it, the senior players particularly. We’ll have a chat about that.
“We’ve tried to make the environment as friendly as we can but it’s a balance between hard work and enjoyment. The task is always to get that right. The staff have done a fantastic job setting up the Lensbury. I think we’re well equipped to handle what’s ahead of us.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies