Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Eddie Jones Era - Five Reasons to be Cheerful...and Five Reasons to be Fearful

Will England get a Steady Eddie, a Ready Eddie, or (as pictured) a Sweaty Eddie? 
Well, since I'm now a semi-retired blog writer, I get to put my feet up and actually enjoy the rugby instead of having to type nonsense about it.  But, every now and then, there'll be something that tickles my fancy and spurs me into dusting off the keyboard.  And, with the Six Nations looming large, the start of the Eddie Jones era seems to be the perfect setting for another couple of pages of waffle.

Should we be excited?  Should we be soiling ourselves in nervous anticipation for the future of English rugby?  Read on to find out....


1.  It's a fresh start

Yes, sometimes after the mother of all cock-ups it's best for a complete clear-out rather than a tweak here or there.  I still remember the horrifying moment of realisation when I was 21, with hair straightened over one eye, that I looked like a cross between an 'emo' and a Butlins-based boyband reject.  A bit of product, a bit of fiddling couldn't resolve my hair-based crisis, and so I resorted to Code Red - a haircut.  "Short back and sides, please".  Problem solved.  I await the same moment of realisation in respect of my brave attempt at a 'beard'.

But England have had the mother of all haircuts.  As I wrote before, no matter what the strengths and weaknesses really were of Lancaster and his coaching staff, the reality is that they were part of a regime that would be forever tainted with the failure of 2015.  Any squad that re-assembled under Lancaster's guidance would not be able to get away from the fact that this was same mechanism that engineered probably the most spectacular and embarrassing failure in English rugby history - and there have been a few.

Instead, there's a new coach with bags of experience and a new outlook, along with a new, young and talented support team in Steve Borthwick and Paul Gustard, who have proven to be architects of brilliance in forward play and defence respectively.

And, above all, everyone has to prove themselves all over again - which can only help drive up performance levels.

2.  New Talent

Well, there;s new talent in the extended squad, certainly.

In truth, Lancaster was treated to some gems towards the end of his tenure, in the form of Anthony Watson, Jack Nowell and George Ford, but the new crop are already here and demanding selection.  Maro Itoje has been touted as a future England skipper and it's easy to see why, Elliot Daly is tearing defences a new one every weekend, whilst Jack Clifford has all the pace, power and game-awareness to be a world-class back row forward.

It's not only the 'kids' though, to be fair - key members of the existing squad are rediscovering form, too.  Ben Youngs and Danny Care have been superb all season, the Vunipola brothers look as if they've got a new lease of life and Owen Farrell, for all his detractors, has been in sublime form in both attack and defence (when he's not dropping the ball over the line).  And even outside of the squad, there are eye-catching displays being churned out by the Leicester southern-hemisphere-born-but-English-qualified backrow trio of Mike Williams, Brendan O'Connor and Lachlan McCaffery, as well as Will Fraser at Saracens.  

The talent is undoubtedly there.  It just needs to be harnessed.

Oh, and Andy Goode has come out of his 2 month long retirement and I reckon he should throw his toupee into the ring.  Food for thought.

3.   Mentality

One promising wedge of information that's been fed to the media by Jones is that we're going to go back to English-roots rugby.  I'm not talking about a 15 man maul for 80 minutes - but, yes, the best pack in the world and a clinical set of backs, capable of taking opportunities when they arise.  It's actually not too dissimilar to the Saracens set-up which, when you consider all 3 coaches have a background with the club, makes sense.

Under the previous regime, you could quite happily have introduced your nan to the England team just before a game, safe in the knowledge that you wouldn't hear a slither of foul language and that the harshest sound would have come from the rustling of Lancaster handing out Werther's Originals.  Yes, Lancaster worked very hard to make England upstanding role models after 2011; he wanted them to be likeable. 

There's no doubt that some of the rules laid down will be of benefit for a long time - such as those which encouraged discipline, pride, humility and focus - but somewhere within this drive for moral excellence, England lost their edge.  And, if there's one thing we've learned, even when England are as nice as pie, everyone still bloody hates us.  The Welsh - now the most arrogant rugby nation by a fair stretch - will still, with spectacular delusion, label us as the arrogant ones.  That won't change.  So let's embrace it - and I think Eddie Jones understands that.  He wants Johnson's England of 2002-03 back - a team with bite, with nastiness and aggression, who teams secretly hated playing against.  A team who knew they were better than anyone they played, simply because they were.

The Stuart Lancaster Team Talk

4.  The Jones Factor

I won't repeat all that I said above, although it would be good to help beef up my word-count, but Jones has the right mentality to drive this new, nasty England.  He was an abrasive character on the pitch in his playing days and he's certainly not afraid to throw a few verbal jabs now, so he's a spiky customer - and, most importantly, he works his teams bloody hard and makes it clear what he wants from them.

He has a big focus on getting the basics right, which is key, and has identified the set-piece as an area where England desperately need to improve.  How the men in white went from having the best scrum in the world to being shunted around by Fiji, with the same personnel, 12 months later, is very worrying, but you can hang your hat on Jones ensuring - first and foremost - that his side has a platform to work from.

On top of all this, of course, is the fact that Jones has the experience and pedigree of getting the best out of his players.  He turned Japan from minnows into a major force on the international stage, he took a less than classic Wallaby side to a final in 2003, and his appointment as an advisor was a key factor behind South Africa's World Cup win in 2007.  Behind that grating Aussie drawl is a bloke who knows his rugby and - critically - knows about winning.

5.  England were never a bad side

There seems to be a mentality after the World Cup that England are - or certainly, were - utter garbage.   A bunch of losers with as much talent as the Kardashian family, the lot of them.  But this simply isn't true - for the most part, anyway.

This was still, for the most part, a side that had beaten the All Blacks, that had pulverised the French in the Six Nations and beaten Wales at the Millennium stadium.  It was, by common consensus, a team that was capable of doing very well at the World Cup - to the extent that they were installed as second favourites before the tournament began.  

For various reasons, of course, the preparation for the World Cup was spectacularly wrong.  They suffered a freak loss to the Welsh in a game which they should have walked and were then blown away by an on-fire Wallaby side which eventually made the final.  They didn't become a bad team overnight - but they picked the worst possible time to have a bad day at the office, which was something which, with adequate preparation, should have been impossible to have.  Since the World Cup, those who won't reach 2019 and those who failed to pull their weight have been jettisoned, whilst the guys who can use the negative experience as a positive driver for the future remain.  


1.  Selections

As mentioned above, there have been plenty of promising selections in the wider squad which have been encouraging for those of us wanting to see the talent at England's disposal given a go.  But for every good call, there's a head-scratcher.  For example, selecting the young Josh Beaumont in the squad is fantastic, but then Jones has failed to select an 'fetcher' openside - something he has repeatedly said England needs - in the squad (with the exception of Matt Kvesic, who is only selected as injury cover).  In another example, on the one hand it's exciting to see youngsters like Paul Hill and Jack Clifford get a shout, but on the other he's ignored the sparkling form of Joe Simpson and Danny Cipriani.

But the wider squad selection isn't really the issue - the matchday squad is, however.  There was enough talent and promise to keep most people happy with the Six Nations training squad - however, for me, Jones has bottled his first selection by dropping Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly, who must both be wandering what on earth they need to do to get selected, particularly when they both offer such great versatility as well as form. There are the usual dodgy calls, too, where players have been selected ahead of others in arguably better form (for example, Marler ahead of Mako, Care ahead of Youngs), but those are more subjective issues.  The failure to select some of the best young talent in the country is less forgivable. 

Ever since the Woodward era, England coaches have been struck by shit-selection-itis, a rare disease which usually manifests itself in excessive caution and the inexplicable retention of shockingly out of form players.  Hopefully, Mr Jones hasn't caught the bug, but this new England does look worryingly similar to old England.

Jones has managed to avoid selecting the form outside centre in England, thank goodness.

2.  Dylan Hartley

Following on from the above, perhaps the biggest head-scratching selection is that of the new skipper, Dylan Hartley and - as the man charged with leading England into battle - he gets his own segment.  I should say at the outset, that I'm not going to prescribe to the arguments about his discipline - I don't care about his bans, and his discipline in an England shirt has, in general, been pretty good.  What I do care about is his worthiness to be in the squad, let alone handed the captaincy.

I'll make no secret of the fact that I am a big Tom Youngs fan and so I was disappointed to see him not selected in the wider squad, but the truth is that I would have had Jamie George as starting hooker anyway.  But the selection of Hartley really grated with me because - for all the talk by Jones of handing a clean slate to everyone - Hartley had done precisely nothing to warrant selection in the squad.  In fact, neither had Luke Cowan-Dickie, who can't get a start for Exeter ahead of the excellent Jack Yeandle, but you can at least argue that he is a project Jones wants to work on, given his young age.

Instead, there are at least 5 players who are all ahead of Hartley, certainly in terms of form over the last 12 months.  Jamie George, Tom Youngs, Jack Yeandle, Tommy Taylor and even his Saints teammate, Mike Haywood, can all feel very aggrieved at being booted back behind Dylan in the pecking order for the 2 shirt.  Even when he hasn't been banned or injured, Hartley hasn't been anywhere near approaching his best for the large part of 2 years, and the message I take from that is this: "Everyone has a clean slate and has to prove themselves...unless your name is Dylan Hartley".

So, no, he isn't worthy of selection in the squad on current form, let alone the team or the captaincy - but I hope he can repay Jones' huge vote of confidence.

3.  The Back Row

Again, this could probably have been squeezed into the selections category, but it's such a big, glaring and ugly void in the English game that it deserves a mention by itself.

Let's not forget, it's not too long ago that Jones was slating England for not having a fetcher, calling the backrow unbalanced and Robshaw 'without a point of difference'.  The backrow last Six Nations was Haskell, Robshaw and Vunipola.  It is now Robshaw, Haskell and Vunipola.  Unless swapping the 6 and 7 jerseys round is a master stroke, not a lot has changed, despite there being genuine options for the openside role in the frames of Will Fraser, Matt Kvesic and Brendan O'Connor (although the latter is currently injured).  

I think they'll be OK in the Six Nations - as Robshaw has repeatedly proven himself to be a very able 7 against northern hemisphere opponents - but against the southern hemisphere giants, England will be badly exposed again unless they blood a fetcher soon.

4.  Injuries

The blight of any international rugby coach seems to be injuries, as Warren Gatland will tell you after the World Cup - not that it stopped the hamster-cheeked git from knocking England out of their own tournament, however.  But already injuries to key men have tied Jones' hands in key positions - and none more so than the 12 shirt, which has - in any event - remained unsuitably filled now for the best part of 10 years.  

With Henry Slade tipped to be the answer and then consequently breaking his leg, it came as a bit of a surprise to see Jones change direction completely and then declare that Manu Tuilagi could be someone that the England backline could be built around in the inside role.  Despite the fact he plays 13.  Despite the fact that he has been injured for 15 months and is presumably now held together by blue-tac.  Still, the lack of the two preferred options at 12 - plus the fact that the injury-replacement, Sam Hill, is crocked himself - means that Jones is already plastering together a makeshift midfield to survive the tournament.

Chuck in injuries to Ed Slater and Brendan O'Connor, who were both rumoured to be in the mix for selection by Jones, as well as Alex Corbisiero's loss of fitness, form and subsequent hiatus, and you have an England 1st XV that is still missing a few key faces.  In an odd way, that's a positive thing, but when you're a coach ahead of you're first game, it really isn't.

5.  The Jones Factor

In the same way that Jones will bring something new and different to the England squad, there's always a chance it may backfire spectacularly.  How will the players respond to his notoriously hard-nosed methods?  How will they react to a foreign coach?  Can everyone understand his accent?

It's also worth pointing out that, whilst Jones is a man of vast experience, it's not as though he has a blemish-free coaching record.  He led the Reds through a disastrous Super Rugby season in 2007, and failed to have a positive impact at Saracens the season after.  And, aside from South Africa in 2007 (where he was working under Jake White), there is a suspicion that he is a little bit of a 'nearly' man; he did brilliantly with the Wallabies in 2003, when they 'nearly' won the World Cup, and with Japan in 2015, when they 'nearly' qualified for the quarter finals.

Perhaps that's harsh, because he certainly has more pedigree than any English coach currently out there, but if Jones is expecting a honeymoon period, he'll find out that - thanks to the English media - it will be a very short one.

For the record, I'm predicting a win against Scotland on Saturday and ANOTHER second place finish.  France to win (seriously).  

1 comment:

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