So, another week; more fun and games from Eddie Jones’ circus. Much like a consummate showman, few opportunities go by without the Tasmanian pulling out a few tricks. He is so much what Lancaster wasn’t. If Lancaster spoke in prose, Jones spools out rhyme. You have to keep your wits about you when Eddie speaks. His silver tongue will slip things past you. Fast Eddie. Distraction Eddie.
He is an excellent operator; an excellent orator. He knows who is listening. And he talks to them and us. The words he uses are often loaded, his phrases pointed, he never misses the chance to prod and poke. This way, then that.
Yesterday the newspapers were awash with news that Danny Cipriani would move on a big money contract to Wasps. There was little from Cipriani himself. He released a very gracious statement aimed at Sale fans; he talked very positively about his time with the Sharks, and his excitement about the move to Coventry, but it was pretty understated. All the fanfare, and there was a fair amount, perhaps understandably, came from Wasps.
Today, out comes Jones, swinging. The Australian England Head Coach lambasted Cipriani. ‘There’s no point in him talking to the press about it, he needs to play well,’ Jones railed, as if Cipriani had told people he should be picked. Eddie quickly laid out stats on new fitness levels and what is involved in being an England player nowadays. He stated his opinion like fact; Ford and Farrell are better players. He was commandeering the media surrounding Cipriani’s move to remind everyone that Ford and Farrell are in front of him in the pecking order. It was a masterly piece of management. He was backing his boys. If you’d picked up yesterday’s paper you’d be forgiven for thinking Danny Cipriani was the choice fly half in England. Today, Jones was redressing the balance.
I thought it a little strange. Because Cipriani is one of his boys, isn’t he? If injury and illness struck, Eddie would have to call on Danny, wouldn’t he? But the reaction from Jones seems, above all, to distance the Sale man. It sounded like Cipriani would never be considered. He talked in such glowing terms about the included duo, you would have thought there was light years between them and Cipriani. But there isn’t. Sure, Ford and Farrell are in front, but not by much. Ask George and Owen, they watch Cipriani’s performances like a hawk. They would tell you he’s a very good fly half.
People claim that Jones tells it like it is. Don’t be drawn in. He’s not, he’s telling it like he sees it. Just because he’s the England coach doesn’t mean he’s right. He has an opinion. Lancaster, Johnson, Robinson et al, they all had opinions. It’s an informed opinion, fostered out of experience, but it is still an opinion. Eddie Jones is using an educated guess. What else can he possible do? This is art, not science. We can’t rerun either of England’s two Six Nations games with Danny at 10 to see if they’d be any different. That is the only way we’d definitely know.
I don’t know if Cipriani would be any better. I am actually of the opinion that Ford and Farrell are two outstanding 10s. But I don’t know, for certain, if Cipriani would be worse for England. Since he hit form with Sale last year and started to be spoken about in these terms, Cipriani has not played for England at fly half. He’s not been given a chance. Why that is, I’m not sure. Especially at this juncture; the start of a new tenure, and off the back of a spectacularly bad showing in a major international competition: this would be the time to give things a new view. Such is the quality of all three players, I would have used the Six Nations to give them each a go. Jones has not taken that opportunity and that’s fine, I suppose, as long as you don’t start using guesswork to say someone isn’t a certain quality; outing him in public as not up to scratch, even though he’s never been tested.
And what has Cipriani done to deserve this? He’s played as well as he could at Sale. I can’t remember any reports of Cipriani not giving of his best. In fact, last weekend’s victory against Exeter shows that he is steering that ship quite nicely thank you. He doesn’t have too many ‘superstars’ around him at the AJ Bell but he’s creating moments of magic and they are scoring good tries. His kicking at goal isn’t as good as it could be, but remember, England’s current fly-half doesn’t kick at goal. Cipriani defends well, did you know both his and Ford’s tackle completion count are higher than Farrell’s? He was largely ignored by Jones’ predecessor and yet still went through the ignominy of trying out at fullback for the World Cup. When that door was shut in his face, he graciously conceded defeat and vowed to work harder. Here he is, playing well and now wanting to move to Wasps (not abroad) to try and play even better and put himself, again, in the frame for England. He’s not saying anything other than that, and yet Jones is belittling him publicly. Of course, there was that incident with his car and the police, wasn’t there? But I think we can all agree Eddie likes misdemeanours. He calls it edge.
Let’s have some honesty. Eddie Jones is not picking a team on form. Certain positions maybe, but not the whole team. He picked Dylan Hartley over Jamie George and Jonathan Joseph over Elliot Daly. If you applied the rules Eddie Jones himself lays out – “To be in this team you need to play like a test player – dominate club rugby and show all the skills of an international,” – in the run up to the Six Nations, George and Daly get in. Joseph wasn’t playing as well as Daly. He’d shown in previous England games what a prodigious talent he is, but he wasn’t dominating club rugby before Christmas. Daly was. Against Scotland Joseph wasn’t dominant. For 52 minutes in Rome, he was being outplayed by Campagnaro; one interception try later and the confidence was coming back, and for the last twenty minutes we saw a man who might dominate club rugby. But before then? No. Come on, let’s be honest.
I’m not going to go into the Hartley situation but surely we can agree he wasn’t playing like a test player for Northampton Saints (he wasn’t playing). I know why he was picked, and I do think he’s a good captain, but Hartley was not picked on the criteria Jones lays out for Cipriani.
And picking the players with which you want to build a team is fine. It is a coach’s prerogative. I get that. Eddie Jones can pick who he wants if he thinks that’s how England will be the best. What I don’t want, is all this guff. This smokescreen. Just come out and say it – ‘these are the players I want in my team because it’s my team’. All this ‘they’re not ready’, ‘he’s so much worse than what we currently have’ can be given a rest. Come on Eddie, let’s really tell it like it is.
If there’s something wrong with Cipriani’s attitude, let’s hear it. There seems to be rumour to this effect. I mean it can’t be that bad, Sale and Wasps don’t think so, but if there are issues, let’s put them out there. If he doesn’t fit the overall picture you are trying to achieve Eddie, we will understand that. Hell, Danny may even accept it, but let’s just be honest.
Manu Tuilagi was named in Eddie Jones’ EPS squad. Could the new England boss really know how Manu would play having been out of the game for so long? But in he went; once again, it was guesswork, the benefit of the doubt. Is his fitness 30% better than it used to be, like his England colleagues so lauded by Jones this week? Is he still a test player? Has a year out and all that has happened taken its toll on Manu’s dominance of a game? Of course, like Jones, we are hoping for the best. We don’t really know until we try it, right? I mean, if he’s selected against Ireland, we will find out won’t we? Either way, we’ll know.
That same luxury is not being afforded Cipriani. Despite evidence to the contrary, despite stats saying otherwise, despite different positions being picked by ulterior methods, Cipriani has to sit and wait, in a unique international rugby limbo. It seems a bizarre path to continue to take. But maybe that’s Eddie’s kinda circus.
Sam Roberts © 2016. (Text only). All Rights Reserved
With no Saxons fixtures this year, it’s hard to know exactly how far away excluded players are from the first team squad. I imagine Nick Easter would have been dropped entirely from both squads, whereas Tom Youngs, Tom Wood, Brad Barritt would be simply demoted to the Saxons. We just don’t know. Maybe Youngs, Wood and Barritt will never win another full cap. And so to Cipriani. With Saxons fixtures, we would know more about how the England coaching setup really see him. If he’s on the fringes of the development squad, out of the matchday 23 except for a bench spot against Italy A, then he’s probably thought of as the fourth or fifth best English 10 – behind Myler or Burns or Botica or whoever. If Cipriani starts every Saxons fixture at 10, clearly he’s third in line. We just don’t know. And Eddie Jones is making the most of that knowledge gap to encourage all the maybes to do better.