Fears that Covid-19 could disrupt the looming block of autumn international fixtures are mounting following the withdrawal of Northampton’s Piers Francis from Eddie Jones’s initial England training squad. Francis has tested positive and will now isolate at home rather than participate in a three-day camp in Teddington.
The Saints centre was one of three players who, according to Jones, were awaiting medical clearance prior to their arrival, underlining the problems facing all sporting teams with positive cases rising again nationally. It comes on the same day that England’s players were told they will not be permitted to leave the confines of their hotel while on international duty in a bid to minimise the chances of coronavirus spreading through the national squad.
Eddie Jones’ England training plans shrouded in doubt over Covid-19 fears
Jones is the first to admit he is no trained epidemiologist – “I’m not a health commissioner, I’m a rugby coach” – but the Rugby Football Union is seeking to create a secure ‘bubble’ at the Lensbury Club, where England will now be based. Going out at night will be off limits and even a quiet coffee will be frowned upon.
“We have to reduce the chances of communal infection which means that we don’t have any contact with the community,” confirmed Jones. “By default, that means we will be staying in the Lensbury. The main thing is we understand the responsibility we have got. We are the England national rugby team. Our responsibility is to make sure we put a smile on people’s faces. I anticipate that every player coming in will be committed to that.”
Jones has been around long enough, though, to know life is not always so straightforward. An error of judgment can never be ruled out. “As young men, we all make mistakes,” Jones said. “We have seen coaches of 75 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. We want to minimise those discipline issues but I can’t guarantee they won’t happen.”
To try to keep the players occupied the RFU, with the aid of a backer, will provide a leisure area for the squad within the hotel. “We’re lucky we’ve got Red Bull as a sponsor and they’ve set up a fantastic, state-of-the-art games lounge for us,” Jones said.
“If I was 30 years younger I’d go in there but I feel a bit old walking in. We’ve got putting greens, we’ve got all sorts of games but the big thing is that the players make their own enjoyment. 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. I think we’re well equipped to handle what’s ahead of us.”
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To guard against cabin fever, Jones has broken down the autumn into three chunks, with the first covering the period up until the Six Nations game against Italy on 31 October. Even when they go home Jones says the players will be required to stay disciplined, but potential complications will arise if squad members are injured and replacements have to be summoned at short notice.
The head coach will be unable to work with his full first-choice squad until the domestic and European finals are over but he has been mulling over the possible effects of playing Tests behind closed doors.
“What I see in sport at the moment is that sides who are getting beaten lack a bit of fight so you get the exaggeration of scores. Maybe the reason they don’t have so much fight is because they don’t sense the consequences of defeat as strongly as maybe they would if crowds were there. The big thing for us is to work on our togetherness, on how hard we’ve got to fight for each other.”
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