Eddie Jones claims England are pulling away but there are signs the chariot is creaking
For most of us the year 2007 was a slow burner that singed more and more people the longer it went on. If the global recession didn't land on your doorstep then sporting disaster met you at the front gate. Ireland's Rugby World Cup? A shocker without a shred of mitigation. We weren't alone in that regard.
Early in the year it was announced in New Zealand that their marquee names would be withdrawn from that season's Super 14 competition, so they could get all lean and mean ahead of the World Cup in France in the autumn. There was an outcry in that country over the way the national team management had, at a stroke, torn the backside out of the club game.
It wasn't long into the All Blacks' special conditioning programme that pictures were wired around the world of the leanness and meanness of these athletes. This was what it was all about: pulling out all the stops to give the ABs every possible chance of bringing home the Webb Ellis Trophy. There wasn't a man, woman or child with a passing interest in the game who didn't think they were on the fast track, that it would all work out.
We thought of that last week when Eddie Jones was describing to the media how his England team, with 16 straight wins under their belts (the run started under Stuart Lancaster, against Uruguay), are ahead of the game. The prospect of a world record 19 on the trot will reach unique clarity if they are still on course when they come to Dublin next month. So public relations plugs like last week's serve a valuable purpose.
In Twickenham two weekends ago England closed down the game against France in the last 10 minutes with the certainty of men playing with a loaded deck. A week later in Cardiff they were in deeper trouble, but, offered a lifeline by Jonathan Davies's extraordinary failure to get the ball off the field, they got some ice into their veins and executed accurately.
Jones explained that keeping their wits about them going down the final straight is not a hit-or-miss affair. "We use a methodology which I've borrowed from soccer called tactical periodisation," he said. "Every day we train a specific parameter of the game.
"We have one day where we have a physical session and do more contacts than we would do in a game. Then we have a fast day where we try to train for at least 60 per cent of the session above game speed. We don't do any extra fitness. It's all done within those training sessions. Because of that we've improved our fitness enormously."
When the Portuguese started colonising in earnest in the 15th century they left business cards saying that in a few hundred years they would send a fresh batch of missionaries: football coaches with a firm grip on how to best play the game. They are credited with giving us tactical periodisation, the training concept that recreates match situations and develops them at high intensity.
Fergus Connolly is a devotee. His experience, surely unique, as a performance coach spans the two rugby codes, as well as professional soccer, GAA and American football, where currently he is with the University of Michigan.
"When you work full-time in soccer you realise it's a game where skill is dominant, so how do you prepare? Skill comes first, fitness comes second," he says. "But rugby has copied too much from some Olympic sports and American football where strength and power come first, and skill comes second. So what Eddie is doing is learning about decision-making and skill execution from soccer, and applying it to rugby.
"Tactical periodisation prioritises the skills and decision-making of the players. When they go to train on a particular day the fitness is secondary, whereas traditionally in rugby and many other sports the fitness coach is so dominant he decides what's going to be done, and how long will be spent doing it. It's backwards - the wrong way around.
"I was first exposed to it with Brendan Rodgers in Liverpool, way back, and Carlos Queiroz when he was assistant coach in Man United - I went to Dubai to spend time with him. Along with Vitor Frade and Jose Oliveira he was one of the originators. They all educated Mourinho, and he's the best example of it. But there are lots of coaches around the world use it. They prioritise skill and decision-making, and use small-sided games primarily to train."
Clearly it's working for Eddie Jones and England. The PR value too is significant. The last time we had this kind of campaign was from Warren Gatland in 2011 when he was busy getting the message out there that his Wales team were the fittest fiddles in the world orchestra. Connolly served under Gatland from 2008 to 2011. He is unconvinced about their approach.
"At the highest end, when you get to the top 20 per cent of any team sport, it's never the physically fittest team that wins, it's the team that makes the fewest mistakes," he says. "Teams like Wales, who can't break into the top four consistently, prioritise fitness first and skill second. They think that they can browbeat and physically dominate teams. But it doesn't matter how fit you are, you still have to execute in the last moments of the game, and what allows you to operate better at that point is that you haven't worn out your decision-making battery - you haven't worn out your cognitive level, ie from the shoulders up. That's the key thing.
"Tom Brady is a great example. You saw him in the Super Bowl: he was still able to execute late in the game despite not being a physically dominant quarterback. But tactically, technically, and in terms of decision-making, he's far superior.
"He trains at such a high intensity you get used to making efficient decisions faster. It's a decision-making cycle that you have to go through. It doesn't matter what walk of life you're in: if you're in the stock market you get used to getting through that decision-making loop fast. That's your training. You develop your fitness through that. You're killing two birds with one stone - mental and physical fitness - but the key is that your prioritising the decision-making."
Joe Schmidt has to get past France and Wales before Jones rolls the chariot into Dublin. With Italy and Scotland next up on England's dance card - both in Twickenham - it's almost a given that they will be chasing a Grand Slam and world record on March 18.
Last week's press briefing from Eddie Jones planted the seed that England are already over the horizon, virtually uncatchable. Ireland's approach to all of this is to say nothing in public. And in private to maintain that this tactical periodisation lark is something everyone dips into, to some degree. Moreover the players have faith seemingly that whatever fitness coach Jason Cowman, who did not wish to comment, is doing is worthwhile.
In the vacuum England will plough on, propaganda machine at full throttle, getting the message across that what they are doing is better than anyone else. Despite their rude health - Mako Vunipola returned to club action this weekend - they are not without problems. The captaincy, for example, is undermining them, given that Eddie Jones has evidently lost faith in Dylan Hartley as a player, if not as a leader.
What the Saint has to offer might not be your idea of the perfect leadership package but at least he doesn't take a backward step. And what struck Jones most when he walked into the England job was the queue of men who would be first over the top when the whistle blew. There wasn't one.
Hartley unequivocally ticked that box. That he did it with a sledgehammer was a bit of a drawback, but it's an imperfect world. That issue reared its ugly head on a crisp Northampton night in December when he came off the bench like a big brother looking for the young fella who had just insulted his sister.
When Hartley emptied Sean O'Brien it presented the tv director with one of those golden moments - the look on Eddie Jones's face, not the dig - and drained the shallow pool that was the hooker's reserves of goodwill.
It probably didn't help that England's captain started that game on the bench, behind the legendary Mikey Haywood, allowing time for Hartley's brew to come to the boil. But the bench is where he has found himself much faster than any of his contemporaries in this competition.
Three games last weekend over the Saturday and Sunday: four of six captains looking to impress Warren Gatland as well as serve their countries. Only one of them was called ashore unfeasibly early without injury being a factor. If 54 minutes in the opener against France must have felt a bit premature for Hartley then it got worse last week in Cardiff. Our understanding is that the negative optics of hauling him off at the half-time break was the chief criterion in affording him a whole six minutes of the second half.
So while England's adoption of tactical periodisation has seen them finish stronger than their opponents in the last five games (see panel), their captain has never been around to see it. The hour mark seems a step too far. His suspension robbed him of a good lead-in to the tournament, but the shortage of leaders sees him used when Jones wants someone better.
It remains to be seen if circumstances will make that decision for the coach over the next couple of games. Ireland would be happy if Hartley hangs on. And they would be happier still if their contention is accurate that England are blustering. We've seen what England can do. So whatever Ireland are doing in private needs to be good enough in public.
Sunday Indo Sport