The King is Dead, Long Live the King!
The appointment of Eddie Jones as the new England rugby coach marks the start of a new beginning. Where does he go from here?
Article by Andy Barnham
The appointment of Australian Eddie Jones as England coach marks the start of England’s road to Japan and the Rugby World Cup in 2019. It is strangely apt given Jones is himself half Japanese in addition to being responsible for steering the Brave Blossoms to a record three wins at the RWC 2015. Responsible for the decision is Ian Ritchie, the RFU’s Chief Executive; who having chaired the autopsy into England’s home World Cup, made the decision himself. If the rumour mill is to be believed Ritchie had the option of choosing Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith in 2011, but due to being new in his position having just come from the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, listened to other voices at Twickenham who preferred home grown experience. While understandable, this decision led to England’s worst World Cup performance ever.
Jones is without doubt a highly experience coach having been either at the helm or helped with Australia, South Africa and Japan as well as clubs and Super teams Brumbies (Australia), Saracens (England), Reds (Australia) and Suntory Sungoliath (Japan). He’s been called both an angel and a devil due to his working habits. Credited for recognising and bringing to national honours a generation of Australian legends such as Rod Kafer, George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, his time with the Australian national team was cut short in 2005 after a difficult period resulting in a losing streak of eight out of nine matches. After helping South Africa win the 2007 Rugby World Cup in the role of technical director, he then quit Saracens in the middle of the 2008/09 season describing it as “the worst he has had in rugby”. There is obviously an edge to Jones with results going either brilliantly or terribly. The impression is that when players listen to him, they excel. When players think they know better… well, the evidence proves how bad the fallout can be.
Critical at the lack of central contracts and potential players plying their trade abroad, Jones has now sided with Twickenham and agreed that players should stay with their clubs and must play in England to be eligible for the national team. Some may call this a U-turn, others would describe it as playing smart and knowing what battles can be won. As he himself has said, he’s mellowed with age, and while his press conference demeanour is refreshingly Australian and straight forward, it is clear his rugby brain is as sharp as ever. How else would the Blossoms have beaten South Africa? So, quite frankly, now what for England?
Starting with the England back room, will the current England assistants remain in post, or will they change? The 2014 Autumn Internationals saw an ‘A’ pack fire on all cylinders and fans believed that England had riches to spare. Quite how the forwards then seemed to fall apart a year later is anyone’s guess, but given Jones’ relationship with Steve Borthwick and the work Borthwick did with the Brave Blossoms, current England forwards coach Graham Rowntree may be looking for a new job soon. That said, Borthwick has a reputation of keeping his word and having just started with Andy Robinson at Bristol, he may not not for the shifting. Will Jones go for Shaun Edwards, out of his Wales Rugby Union contract, who went to work with Gatland and Wales after the snub of only being offered the England Saxons squad in 2011 (which would mean the boot for Andy Farrell)?
In regards to the players, Jones has to name his Elite Player Squad (EPS) on 6 January before the 6 Nations kicks off on 6th February. This gives him over a month to immerse himself with his new crop of players. Given he was able to name check uncapped England players while chatting at the last World Cup, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Jones has stated that he’s keen on immediate wins rather than focusing on the future and the door is open to anyone (playing in England of course). This should be music to every eligible player in England, and indeed with English clubs winning six out of six games in the European Champion’s Cup over the weekend of 21/ 22 November (the first time in seven years), it seems that everyone is stepping up to the mark. Indeed, English teams have won 10 out of 11 in the current European competition. Is this due to the long pre-season, England’s early exit or maybe something in the water? Who knows, but fans will be hoping for this success to be translated to the national stage.
Following recent announcements by players critical of their handling by Jones’ predecessor Lancaster, a new regime is much needed. While professional sport can be cutthroat, some of the news coming from the players in regards to Lancaster has been disheartening; in form winger for the past few seasons Strettle indicating his move to France was prompted due to zero communications with the then England management, making his place in the initial World Cup squad a complete shock. Burrell, who started every England 6 Nations game in 2014 and 2015 being dropped at the final set of cuts in preference for league convert Burgess who had been playing flanker at Bath (at time of writing Burgess’ professional league career is in limbo. His return to NRL has stalled as his lucrative contract would take the Rabbitohs over the salary cap. As such the NRL has refused to register the player).
To give Lancaster credit, the majority of the England squad is in place and a large percentage is expected to be around for 2019; the major problem of his tenure being team selection. Jones will need to find an answer to a question that fans have been asking since 2004; who is our best centre partnership? Jones has always shown a preference for a second player maker in the back line in addition to the fly half; does this mean that we will see Henry Slade given a run (and if so will his club, Exeter, aid Jones and only play Slade in the centres and not also fly half)? With Jonathan Joseph a long term injury will we see Elliot Daly, currently in a dominating Wasps team, in the squad? Will Manu Tuilagi be fit again after almost 2 years of sitting on the side lines, and now what for Burrell? What is clear from the last World Cup, it is no longer good enough to beat teams through defence, you need to outscore them and the best teams have a fetcher/ jackal in their back row to aid continuity and keep the opposition on their back foot. Where this leaves current Captain Chris Robshaw has yet to be seen. Robshaw’s work rate or tackle count has never been in question, but rather it is his turnover rate and the balance of the back row that needs to be solved. Will he be seen in the No6 shirt, where he regularly turns out for Harlequins or has his time in an England shirt now finished? And what of former wild child Danny Cipriani, barely given game time under Lancaster, who’s knuckled down at Sale and has added game management to his x- factor? What is clear is that everyone has a chance, so it is not unlikely that the EPS will contain some outside choices. Will we see Matt Symons who has been plying his trade in New Zealand with two-time Super Rugby champions the Chiefs (where he packed down with 2014 World Rugby Player of the Year Brodie Retallick) and is now playing with London Irish? How about Exeter duo Dave Ewers and Sam Hill? Exciting times for sure.