This time last year, it was more a case of patching things up and doing the best he could in a short space of time, whereas he now has a Six Nations and World Cup campaign under his belt, and all the learnings that come with that.
I’ve compared Steve to the famous codebreaker Alan Turing in the past (only half tongue-in-cheek) because he is something of a visionary when it comes to using data in the sport. It’s not data for data’s sake, though: he wants everything to be explainable and measurable. We’ve had analysis in the game for a long time, but it’s always been quite subjective: ‘this guy’s got a good left-foot step’, for example, or ‘this team kicks the ball a lot’.
But with Steve it’s different. It’s ‘if you have this amount of territory against this team, you’ll win’, or ‘if you give away fewer than x penalties, then you will win’. It’s only a matter of time before artificial intelligence properly comes into the equation – it’s where everything else is going in the world, after all – and I don’t doubt that someone like Steve will be the first harness that sort of resource for the benefit of England.
New captain Jamie George is the ideal counterpoint to Steve in some ways. Jamie is very personable and Steve is very focused and driven. Because Jamie’s so popular with everybody in camp, he will get a sense of the squad’s morale, allowing Steve to really focus on his game plan and the many other things that take up a head coach’s time. They’ve both got their hearts in the right place and want the very best for England, so they should complement each other well. I’m really pleased for Jamie. I spoke to him and he’s not taking the role lightly: he knows what an honour it is to lead his country.
It’s survival of the fittest when it comes to selection, and huge credit to the guys who've made it to that point, because training in Girona will have been very tough. Under Eddie Jones, we used to undergo our pre-Championship training in Portugal. It’s nice to get a bit of sun, and it means you can train a bit longer, but a hell of a lot goes on in a short space of time. You use it to very quickly shift from a club to country mindset, with new coaches and a new game plan that will have changed from the World Cup. People will be ripping in, because it’s almost like a trial. Just thinking about it is making me not miss it, because these camps are hard!
I’m optimistic about England this year. It’s Italy first up, and while they will always come out firing in round one at home, I can’t see any other result than an England win – and a good one at that. I think there’s going to be an energy we’ve not seen in a long time: in the line speed, in the boys’ carrying. With Felix Jones coming in as defence coach, there could be a rocket start to this campaign. Think back to the defence away to Ireland 2019, or that New Zealand semi-final in the World Cup that year; I can see that coming back and being a foundation, along with the set-piece. There will be lots of attacking opportunity off the back of doing those two things well.
On paper, England have the two lowest-ranked teams in the competition first up. Win that game in Rome and then beat Wales at Twickenham, then all of a sudden there’s optimism and momentum behind them. You’d be a bit more sceptical if they were going to Murrayfield or Marseille in round one. Any player will tell you that when you lose a game on the weekend, everybody dreads going back in on a Monday to relive it and take learnings from the loss. But when you’re with England, you don’t go home: you’re in camp and you’ve lost the first game, and all of a sudden the Grand Slam is off. The buzz is gone and you can’t leave. It becomes pretty dark quite quickly, and all of a sudden you’re under the pump. So all these fixtures appear to have aligned for England.
One player England won’t have to worry about this year is my former Gloucester teammate Louis Rees-Zammit, who recently left to try and make it in the NFL. We came back into training on a Monday following an away game in Edinburgh – in which Zam had played well and scored a great solo try – and he wasn’t there. None of us had heard from him. We thought he may have been given a week off, because we’ve been rotating, but then Skivs [head coach George Skivington] said “Zam’s going to come in and talk to you all”. He was quite emotional when he spoke, saying it was the toughest decision he’s ever had to make, but that his days as a Gloucester player were over. Now he’s gone, and it’s weird not having him at the club every day.
Jonny May is the second-highest try-scorer for England in the Guinness Men’s Six Nations (14), and second on England’s all-time try-scoring list (36).