Five rounds of international rugby becomes the Six Nations Championship. Seven weeks of ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ manifest themselves as a final table. Sporting potential into rugby fact. Ireland rode out the storm exceptionally well, took their chances and defended for their lives. It was an emerald green Grand Slam, which owed as much to a gregarious drop goal as it did their demure head coach. From Ringrose’s rapid feet to Henderson’s heavy duty spade work, Ireland brought it all together. This oval ball sport proving once again that it is about constituent parts becoming a whole. It is, after all, rugby union.
Seven weeks ago, England were many people’s champions elect. Eddie Jones was winking and wisecracking, telling everyone that England had an injury crisis. If only that had been true. Perhaps the sole notable absentee was Billy Vunipola. But if England have that much riding on the fitness of the Saracens’ No.8, that doesn’t bode well. If they want to win the Rugby World Cup in 2019, they will have to have two or three high quality players for every position. That is what the All Blacks have (at least). I believe England have the resources to get themselves into this position. Whether they will, is perhaps the the most crucial part of the next year and a half.
England’s unravelling has done a huge amount of damage to the main man’s reputation. It is a curious situation; Jones was held in high esteem for his wonderful reinvigoration of the national side, and the way he instilled some much needed confidence post a dismal 2015 World Cup. He now has failed to fix an equally dismal four game run and confidence has seemingly left town. Jones has gone from aggressively defending his players (post Wales), to being disappointed with individual discipline and suggesting some have played their last game for their country. If you are looking for how this period has affected good players, observe the two tries Sam Simmonds scored against Italy in Rome, and then his almost anonymous 67 minutes against Ireland at Twickenham.
Jones suggested in one post match interview that this losing streak is the best thing that could happen to England. I disagree. Losing to an excellent Scotland was probably the best thing that happened to them. Following it up with similar displays against France and Ireland was possibly the worst. The questions it causes the England head coach are not what he needs. He’d far rather know that his players can respond to adversity. At the moment, he knows they can’t. Some interested observers are suggesting England are right back where they started before Jones took over. Progress is rarely a straight line, but it is never a circle.
Many are proffering tiredness as an excuse. England did certainly seem to lack a certain freshness. Their British and Irish Lions contingent have not been properly rested like those in the Irish ranks: Jonny Sexton has played nearly half the amount of rugby of Owen Farrell since last summer. And it was interesting to hear that many English fans picked out Elliot Daly as one of the few bright sparks in an England backline. Before the French game, he hadn’t played any rugby since mid December. An injury lay off has seemingly done him a favour.
It is a pretty logical decision to rest players off the back of a Lions tour. But not one Jones controls. For that to happen, he would have to have the backing of the clubs, who own the players. It is an old argument that the RFU had hoped they’d put to bed with Jones’ tenure; now it gets the blame for a fifth place showing in the Six Nations.
Jones can however control who he takes to South Africa this summer; it will be interesting to see who he picks. Whilst off the back of a successful Six Nations campaign you might have seen him take an ‘A’ side, perhaps he doesn’t have that luxury in June.
There are voices that suggest Jones is a good stirrer, but not a great cake maker. You don’t have to look too far into his past to see a pattern that shows him start well and then fade. His methods and style seemingly lend themselves to situations that need starting over. That alacritous mind so present at press conferences has been used to unsettle playing groups, bringing about a renewed sharpness and a distress that creates energy. But after a while, do players adjust to the noise? Once you know what he’s up to, and your mind softens to his outbursts, does the message get lost? He has said very similar things about discipline after the side’s failings against Scotland, France and Ireland. It sounds an odd thing to say, but are the players listening to what he says?
The call for an attack coach is also most prevalent. England have looked most attractive going forward when one was in place, if only on a temporary basis. Maybe the RFU need to find someone to take this role off Jones. Wayne Smith is currently in an advisory position at NRL side Melbourne Storm. ‘The Professor’ would be a fantastic mind for England to call upon in their current predicament.
What will be fascinating is how Jones goes from here. He needs to bring people together; again, a game of union. How does he stop players in his team, and especially those on the outskirts of the squad, from becoming dissenting voices? His issue around leadership has snowballed too. Does Dylan Hartley still have the job with England and if not, should it be Owen Farrell’s? What about the likes of Dan Robson, Henry Slade, Don Armand – players who have been ignored previously? What does he say to them? When England were winning Eddie Jones was right. Do recent results now make him wrong?
The questions are many. Jones will have to wrestle with all of them as he attempts to get England’s ship back on course. His 22 wins from 23 games was an incredible achievement. It will have to be matched if he is to deliver on his promise in 2019.
A week is a long time in sport. Seven weeks seems a lifetime ago.