If Eddie Jones is feeling the pinch given England’s poor form in 2018, his demeanour at their warm-weather training camp in the Algarve gives a different impression.
As Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi sit down for the Rugby Union Weekly podcast, Jones wanders past in a mischievous mood.
And when the Leicester duo are asked how the camp is going, it’s Jones who gets in first.
“Fantastic,” he heckles, a gentle reminder to his troops to stay on-message.
The change of scenery, swapping their usual base of Bagshot in Surrey for Vilamoura in Portugal, coincides with a relaxed atmosphere in camp.
Prop Harry Williams chats about everything apart from rugby – from the price of boa-constrictors to the comedian Joe Rogan – while George Kruis interrupts the interview to remind the Exeter man of his questionable display on the golf course earlier in the week.
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“Were you playing hockey or cricket?” taunts the Saracens lock.
And Williams’ Chiefs team-mate Jack Nowell, sporting a cropped hairstyle dyed peroxide blonde, lifts the lid on his new nickname: “Everyone is singing every Eminem song possible,” he explains.
But relaxed vibe or not, England are up against it this autumn.
‘Naughty boys’ back for England
Eddie Jones’ side face a resurgent Springboks first up, followed by the world champions New Zealand at Twickenham, and two defeats would ask further questions of the direction of travel under Jones with the World Cup looming.
England are shorn of key personnel up front – Billy and Mako Vunipola are a huge loss – while changes in the coaching staff mean new systems and structures have been introduced.
Surely, with the clock ticking to Japan, England should be fine-tuning rather than re-setting? Jones takes a different view.
“It’s fantastic for us,” he insists. “One of the things I have learned from being involved in a number of World Cup campaigns is that you need to keep tactically changing. You don’t want to be a sitting duck.”
But while Jones is without some big-hitters, a few well-known names from yesteryear are back in the fold.
England’s famous defeat of the All Blacks in 2012 was inspired by the bludgeon of Manu Tuilagi and the finishing of Chris Ashton. After a long hiatus – for a variety of reasons – both men are again in the mix.
“They are all naughty boys aren’t they, all those old ones!?” jokes Jones. “So we have got them under lock and key. I said to Chris Ashton the other day he is always a common denominator!
“But they have been good. They appreciate they have another opportunity now to play for England and they want to play for England. Mentally they are both in a good spot, physically good, and they have added to the squad.”
New dad Tuilagi ‘fittest for a long time’
Tuilagi, so often ravaged by injury, is set to make his first England appearance in almost two-and-a-half-years.
“I’m just really excited and really enjoying being back in the squad with the best players in the country. It’s the fittest I have felt in a long time,” he reflects.
“He’s come a long way,” laughs scrum-half Ben Youngs, leaping to his Leicester team-mate’s defence when Rugby Union Weekly presenter Ugo Monye asks who is helping Tuilagi with his notoriously poor time-keeping. “He’s a dad now, he’s got lots of responsibility!”
“Fatherhood is the best thing ever,” Tuilagi adds. “She has been keeping me busy and I’m enjoying every moment, even when she wakes up at two o’clock in the morning. But she is too cute to be angry at. You look at life with a completely different perspective.”
Despite the injury issues and his side’s form over the last 12 months, Jones feels his players are in a far superior place to this time 12 months ago, when an underwhelming autumn series preceded a desperate Six Nations.
“The players are in much better shape,” explains the England head coach. “You don’t realise how much the Lions tour knocks the players around.
“We had 70% of our players on the Lions tour and they don’t have a pre-season. This year they have had a pre-season, they are fitter, mentally they are fresher, and they are ready to go.”
The next few weeks could shape whether Jones and his men will be serious contenders in Japan next year – or merely making up the numbers.