Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary defined opportunity as a favourable time for grasping disappointment. When the panel convened by Twickenham to conduct a postmortem on England’s Six Nations campaign meets this month, there will be only one outcome if its mood is shaped by where England finished and the side’s overall level of performance: sayonara, Eddie Jones.
Reacting in kneejerk fashion rarely yields anything more fruitful than a short-lived bounce, and not always then as Wales found out in the 1980s and 1990s. Listening to the Rugby Football Union’s Bill Sweeney and Conor O’Shea last week suggested there would be a proportionate and measured response to a campaign that saw England slump from first to fifth and that a coach who took the side to the World Cup final in 2019 would be judged on more than the last couple of months.
Sacking coaches is an easy, if expensive, option, especially if it satisfies public opinion. Reports over the weekend suggested that Warren Gatland would achieve a personal triple crown and succeed Jones after stints with Ireland and England. He had been spotted househunting in Twickenham which begged the question why he was not looking slightly further afield in a more rural and scenic location. Or was he on his way to the Lensbury to check out England in training ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa?
Every coach has a shelf life and Jones has been fired before, but any review of why England underperformed, and they were without question one of the two Six Nations also-rans, has to look beyond the players and management and ask whether the English system and its constant pull between club and country is optimised for the national side.
Nor should this unprecedented time be overlooked. The pandemic meant England started preparing for the tournament with their skills coach stuck in Australia, their forwards coach requiring treatment for Covid-19 and Jones in isolation. On top of that, the spine of his team had not played since the end of the Autumn Nations Cup after the RFU had acquiesced in the relegation of Saracens, although it could not have failed to have been aware of the potential consequences for Jones and England, even before Covid.
All of which does not fully explain why England, after starting understandably slowly, stalled after the victory over France and were drab in defeat in Dublin. There were 15 matches in the Six Nations: take away the five blow-outs involving Italy and eight of the other 10 were decided by no more than a try, all the defeats holding the consolation of a bonus point. The two exceptions were England’s double-figure margin reverses against Wales and Ireland, and even then it was all-square at the Principality Stadium going into the final quarter.
Lonely is how Jones described the job of an international coach in his autobiography last year. “You’re supposed to know everything and offer constant belief to a huge number of mostly complex individuals,” he wrote. “You are never short of someone telling you what you are doing wrong. You take it in your stride but sometimes, if you are not strong, it blows you off course. International rugby lacks the camaraderie of the club game with more distance between you and the players. You are picking men to play for their country, or dropping them, and you need greater detachment. You also know that if they let you down, you will cop the blame.”
Failure and success made coaching, like life, cyclical, he reflected. “There will be peaks and troughs. You need to build confidence and consistency.” Jones has not spent his five years and a bit in England cosying up to the media and accusations he has faced throughout his career about being dictatorial, overly demanding and the owner of a sharp tongue have been reheated. He dismissed them in his book, saying all stories need a villain, and that straight talking should not be mistaken for aggression. “We are not here to make friends but improve squads.”
Charm offensives are not his thing, but a downside of the modern era is that where years ago coaches would talk about selection and reveal some behind-the-scenes details, knowing those quotes would not be attributed to them, access is now severely restricted, knowledge replaced by guesswork. At the 2003 World Cup when he coached Australia, Jones was accessible and amenable, willing to chat at the end of an official media call and always thought-provoking, filled with ardour for the game.
It is different now, to the gain of no one, but it is clear that Jones has the same desire and drive; and that is all the panel needs to consider, that his fire is still burning. Of course selection will be an issue, alongside whether there needs to be a step between club and international rugby. Results in Europe continue to show that, with Bristol and Harlequins – both in the Premiership’s top four – conceding 100 points between them at home to French opposition this season, 51 and 49.
On top of everything is his record, both in the past five years and in the World Cup with Australia, South Africa, Japan and England, three finals and the biggest act of giant-killing in the tournament’s history. A feature of the 2019 final and Dublin recently was a failure by players to modify the gameplan, a failing that long preceded Jones. He has, perhaps, been too loyal to some, but he has also scoured the Premiership, willing to take a punt.
There is a common assumption that because England have more players than anyone else, they should be predominant, but until the game has a system that allows it to maximise its resources, to the benefit of all, that will happen infrequently and they will miss opportunities, no matter who the head coach is; and England already have one of the best.