If the theme in the England camp this week has been mimicking the stress and strains of their four-day turn-around at the start of their World Cup campaign in Japan next year, not all has gone Eddie Jones’ way.
On Tuesday night, England brought in chefs from a Japanese restaurant based in Winchester to serve up a spread of sushi to enhance the cultural theme.
Jones, however, indicated but the experience was not embraced whole-heartedly by all.
“They put on a good spread and the boys enjoyed the difference,” reported England head coach Eddie Jones, with a smile. “At the team meeting everyone got a set of chopsticks… but I don’t think everyone used them.”
Maro Itoje was one player, at least, who was more than happy to ditch the knife and fork.
“I am a big fan of sushi so it was probably just about getting us thinking about Japan as soon as possible,” said Itoje, who at 24 will be one of the senior statesmen in a side featuring 11 changes from the one that almost toppled New Zealand last Saturday.
“I am okay with the chopsticks when it comes sushi but I wouldn’t dare eat rice them them. But I am okay with the big stuff.”
It is the small stuff, however, that Jones is fixated on this week. He believes that his players’ reaction to the challenge of playing a well-organised and well-coached Japan side at Twickenham on Saturday will enable him to fine-tune the detail for next year’s World Cup.
England will play their first pool match next September against Tonga in Sapporo, with their second game against the United States taking place just four days later in Kobe, a 700-mile flight away.
Accordingly, this week’s training has been cut by a day, to intensify their preparation, and the much-changed side, with a new captain in George Ford, will further test England’s pragmatism and adaptability for what is the first Test match between the two sides at Twickenham and only the second since 1987.
“From 12 months out we’ve been preparing for the World Cup so we’ve been trying to do little bits and pieces to get us best prepared,” said Jones. “Our attention is on Japan, but to get a little awareness of what it will be like in Japan is important.
“We get feedback from the games. It gives us feedback on how we’re training and preparing and at the moment the feedback is good.”
For Neal Hatley, England’s scrum coach, the restricted time has also tested the players’ recovery time from the physical demands of the New Zealand game. With just Elliot Daly wearing the same shirt from last Saturday, the new team has had little time to take on board the analysis of Japan.
“We’ve tried to mimic the four-day turnaround between games one and two, letting the players get a feel of what it would be like from a recovery point of view, post-match and pre-match,” Hatley said.
“What type of work we can get done inbetween the games and how quickly we can get information disseminated amongst them. It’s been an unbelievably good exercise.”
We will see just how effective it has been against a highly-organised Japan, coached by former All Black Jamie Joseph, who has instilled in his players many of the traits of his former Super Rugby side the Highlanders. The Japanese players have also benefited from the participation of the Sunwolves in Super Rugby.
Jones is expecting a kicking game from the side he coached at the 2015 World Cup.
“They beat Italy when they kicked the ball 45 times,” Jones says. “That’s once every minute. Our backfield will get plenty of work and it means it will be a higher transition game than set-piece game, that brings challenges in itself.”
Ford’s leadership role is key, both in preparation for the game this week and in organising a reshuffled backline that includes a midfield of Alex Lozowski and Jack Nowell, and 21-year-old giant wing Joe Cokanasiga on his debut.
It is a sign of his maturity and experience that Ford, on his 50th cap, has come to terms with losing his starting place at fly-half to Farrell for the matches against South Africa and New Zealand.
He may not have conceded that the fly-half contest is over on the road to the World Cup, but he is at peace with his role within the squad, either as a starter or finisher.
“The big thing that we have been saying to the squad is that the opportunity for us is huge this weekend – to go out there and show that some of the bits we had last week in terms of action and intensity of our play against New Zealand is where we are at now,” said Ford.
“That is the benchmark and we are only going one direction from there and that’s to be better than that and not dip underneath it. That can again be challenging but that is what we want to do.” Chopsticks or not.