England players and coaches have spoken about the “awesome” value of “sharing and learning” with Aussie rugby league coaches on the day Raiders coach Ricky Stuart joined the English camp in Japan.
Fresh from his NRL Grand Final heartbreak, Stuart and several Raiders coaching staff arrived in Beppu and will spend the week with Eddie Jones’ squad as they prepare to play Australia in the quarter-finals.
Jones has had NRL coaches spend time with England before, including Craig Bellamy and Jason Ryles from the Storm, but the timing of Stuart - a former Wallaby tourist - being embedded in England camp ahead a playoff with his home country has raised eyebrows.
Jones' invitation for Stuart to join them in Japan was apparently arranged a while ago (via the shared manager of Stuart and England defence coach John Mitchell, John Fordham) but the dynamic was labelled as “weird” by Wallabies coach Michael Cheika on Monday, given the looming playoff against Australia.
It is not unusual for coaches to spend time in other codes and in other countries - All Blacks coaches have spent lots of time with the Storm, for example - and it usually in an observational capacity, with chats about things like coaching systems and mentality secrets.
But England fullback Eliott Daly and Mitchell both indicated there was some live coaching value in having Australian rugby league players come in, and in Stuart’s case, get tips about playing in big games such as the recently passed NRL Grand Final.
"Ricky and his coaching group have just arrived today. It's great to see them again,” Mitchell said.
"One of the great things I believe Eddie does in our environment is very much a learning environment.
"Ricky is not the only coaching group from rugby league or any other sport that has come in. We have them on a regular basis and so at the end of the day we want to see what we are doing that can be improved and we like to learn off others and that's the great opportunity we have.
"It's just a watching, a learning and a sharing process that occurs so it's awesome. If you were to ask any of the other coaches and players, to get somebody in we can share and learn off and create a stimulus around.
"They've just recently played in one of the major rugby league competitions in the world (NRL grand final), you'd be stupid if you weren't able to gain something from that."
Far from being neutral observers, Daly said many England players look to pick the brains of the guest rugby league coaches who watch training, and get tips to improve their games.
“It’s good interaction, they just came this morning so we haven’t had a chance to speak to them,” Daly said.
"They are very open about coming in and a lot of the boys speak to them and look to pick up things for their game.
"They watch training and extras so it’s good to ask them if they see anything that you could bring into your game. It’s a good way of doing it and it’s interesting to see what they’ve got to say.”
In reality, there’s a limited amount a guest coach from a different code can do to massively influence a Rugby World Cup quarter-final and its players; all of whom would be exhaustively coached and analysed by rival coaches anyway.
And while the timing is also likely happenstance than deliberately planned by Jones, the England coach would probably be delighted Stuart’s presence has crept under the skin of Cheika.
England also aren’t short of Aussie knowledge on the Wallabies in any given week, with “strine” almost the dominant language of the coaching room.
Jones and backs coach Scott Wisemantel both former coaches in the Wallabies system, ex-Adelaide Crows coach Neil Craig is the England performance coach, and Mitchell was a long-time coach of the Western Force.
Coach intrigue aside, England’s biggest concern at the moment is the fitness of talismanic no.8 Billy Vunipola, who has an ankle injury and is racing the clock to be fit for the quarter.
England name their team on Thursday and Mitchell said after some graduated training away from the group today, he rated Vunipola’s chances of playing as “very likely”.
"Billy is progressing really well,” Mitchell said.
"He has trained again today so we are very confident in progression each day. Jack wasn’t at training. He is on another prescription of training and he is also progressing so again as we go through the week, it will us more of a chance of where he stands in terms of selection."