Eddie Jones is under pressure going into England’s Test series against the Springboks after a poor Six Nations campaign, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.
It is a devil of a long time since the prospect of a ‘summer’ tour weighed so heavily on the shoulders of an England coach. Eddie Jones’ squad will touch down in Johannesburg having lost their last three Tests and shorn of their captain and other dependables. The majority of those who do make the trip will bear the scars of a nine-month European season in which their only significant competitive breaks will have been because of injury.
Bruised and battered, their mental and competitive edges blunted by months of heavy collisions and ‘must win’ matches, there will be few, if any, of the England
squad who truly believe their best rugby of the season awaits them over three consecutive Saturdays in June.
The opposition is a side England might have expected to be at its lowest ebb. The past few years have been a disaster for South African rugby. Yet, even without a ball having been kicked or a ruck hit, the mood has been lifted. The appointment of Rassie Erasmus has sparked new optimism and South Africa appears to have the right man in charge. The irony is that, for the first time during Jones’ reign, we in the north are asking, ‘Is he really the best man for England?’
Given Jones came into 2018 having led England to 22 wins out of 23 matches, you would have thought his stock was sufficiently high to weather a couple of bad results. But then Jones wasn’t hired to perform a Grand Slam in 2016, successfully defend a Six Nations title or, in between, whitewash Australia 3-0 in Australia. No, his job description details winning the 2019 World Cup. So, a side whose performances have gone sharply into reverse barely 18 months before leaving for Japan is cause for grave concern.
Jones’ appointment by the Rugby Football Union had in large part been sealed by South Africa’s World Cup failure three years ago, masterminded at the foot of the Sussex Downs by Eddie’s tactical masterclass. At the same time England’s campaign was slipping even more sharply off the rails. Stuart Lancaster duly paid the price and the Richard Burton of rugby’s Wild Geese of globetrotting coaching mercenaries was plucked from behind his new desk in Cape Town and dropped into the game’s hottest and most highly remunerated seat.
And what a masterstroke it turned out to be. Throughout the next two years, the image of Jones’ grinning visage beneath a grey beanie sparked spontaneous cheers whenever it was flashed on the big screens on bitter midwinter afternoons at any of the Premiership’s 12 grounds. England had become winners again and they racked up triumph after victory.
Jones’ newfangled vocabulary – ‘finishers’ instead of replacements and ‘apprentices’ (unproven yet promising youngsters drafted into his squad) – entered the English rugby lexicon without being questioned, while the coach’s blind faith in favourites such as his captain, Dylan Hartley, and rejection of others, like Dan Robson and Don Armand, escaped critical scrutiny.
One of his first observations after spending time with his first England squad was just how unfit he thought they were. Cue a regime of squad get-togethers that left many players returning to their clubs exhausted or injured. One of those players was Sam Jones, who arrived at his namesake’s Brighton camp in October 2016 just hours after he’d played 80 minutes for Wasps in the Premiership. Received wisdom is that matches are followed by easy training days. But waiting for the flank were Eddie’s fitness gurus flanked by Olympic judokas and a date on the mat with Maro Itoje, whose reputation is as one of the most powerful in the England squad. Jones broke his leg, suffered serious ankle damage and ruptured a knee ligament. It finished his career.
And he wasn’t the only one. Young Bath flank Tom Ellis suffered a serious knee injury while training with England in 2017, forcing him out for 10 months. The same club described Sam Underhill as ‘broken’ after he returned injured from an England session in March. These are extreme examples of the sort of collateral damage left in the orthopaedic wards by Eddie’s England. Yet, until recently, no one apart from the clubs has been seen to complain.
But that changed in 2018. Unbeatable England turned into fifth-place England. First, the Calcutta Cup and then humiliation in Paris exposed critical flaws, all of which was further compounded by a clinical Irish performance in England’s backyard. Serious concerns started to be raised about Jones’ coaching philosophy.
Post-match press conferences turned awkward and TV and radio interviews were occasionally confrontational. Was Jones too loyal to players who were no longer cutting it? Were they being over-trained? After the Scotland defeat, Jones offered this: ‘Every good team goes through this period. It’s actually an essential part of developing a great team.’
After France it was: ‘It so happened that they scored more points than us. If you look at every other aspect, we outscored them. We won every stat apart from the scoreboard.’
Jones was skewering himself on his own platitudes.
And then came the story that reached out to an audience beyond rugby. A recording emerged of a corporate-leadership presentation Jones had given months earlier. In PR terms its contents were an act of self-harm.
‘We’ve played 23 Tests and we’ve only lost one Test to the scummy Irish,’ Jones told his audience. Wales also didn’t escape Jones’ judgement damning the principality as ‘this little sh*t place’.
The loss of Hartley for the tour – he is recovering from a series of concussions – offers an opportunity for Jones. The long sequence of victories had become an obsession for England. Even when performances, if not necessarily the results, began to slip last year Jones resisted change.
Hartley to Jamie George became what John Smit to Bismarck du Plessis once was for South Africa – only Hartley has never been more than half the player or leader the 2007 World Cup-winning captain was. Former captain Lawrence Dallaglio was damning about Jones’ loyalty to Hartley in the aftermath of the Scotland loss.
‘Ideally, the captain should be one of the team’s strongest players, but Hartley is not,’ Dallaglio said. ‘He is often one of the first to be substituted and, again, that is far from ideal. If the captain is not the best player in his position you are starting from a bad place, and I don’t see Hartley as better than Jamie George.’
We shall learn over the coming weeks just how much Jones is prepared to change and what is the extent of the recalibration. A whitewash for the Boks will extend England’s losing sequence to six, with their next two Tests in November being against South Africa (again) and the All Blacks.
If indeed the wheels do come off Eddie’s chariot, there may be some claiming they predicted it. Former Wallabies captain Phil Kearns said this of Jones before England’s 2016 tour: ‘They will be incredibly successful over the next two or three years. The big question is what happens after that. He is a very astute coach, but there is a point where the fanatical work ethic goes too far.’
Jones himself shows no obvious signs of feeling the pressure.
‘I used to be referred to as the England head coach,’ he said. ‘Now it’s “the Australian” in charge of England.’
Events in February and March have ramped up the significance of the three Tests in June. The knife edge on which fortunes balance in international sport rests, as Jones pointed out during the Six Nations, on a percentage point here or there. That’s why victory or defeat against the Boks will not necessarily define success or failure for England.
What does matter, though, is that their coach is seen to have got them back on the right track and to have made up in terms of performance at least some of the ground they have lost since Eddie’s England were in their 2016 pomp.
– This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.