Everybody keeps passing Eddie Jones shit sandwiches and, refusing to accept them like someone avoiding a summons server, they’re just piling up around him and stinking the place out. But amidst the stink, the prickly little fellah is trying to put a brave face on it: “I’m enjoying it, loving it, absolutely loving it.”
Jones has three huge problems, two of them stemming from English rugby’s dysfunctional set-up. Firstly, he has no influence over when or in what positions club coaches select his international players; and secondly, the Premiership has adapted a breakdown protocol which, while not unreasonable when considered in isolation, is profoundly unreasonable when taken in the context of the game as it is played outside twelve English clubs.
Personality Goes A Long Way
His third problem is entirely of his own making. From the outset, he has been determinedly abrasive and dismissive towards a myriad of ‘stakeholders’: players on the fringe of his English side, players who were regulars in his predecessor’s side, retired players, pundits, club owners and members of the media.
Nor has he endeared himself to other fans by limiting his potshots to in-house targets. Whether it’s “the scummy Irish”, the “little shit place” that is Wales, comments about Johnny Sexton’s medical history, the Scottish style of play [ “Scotland….again they’re big darlings aren’t they?! How excited do people get when the ball goes from side to side with Scotland!”] or the Welsh team’s supposed doubts around their outhalf Rhys Patchell.
Jones is a hugely experienced coach, knows an enormous amount about the game all over the world and has the scars to prove it. He led England to back-to-back Six Nations championships, incorporating a Grand Slam and a 3-0 series win in Australia in an 18-game winning streak which equalled the All Blacks’ record for consecutive victories. But his manner throughout has been needlessly confrontational, even spiteful. The short-termism of it was obviously apparent: if you piss off that many people when you’re on top and untouchable, they’ll take their revenge when you’re down at a low ebb. And The Mole can’t even really blame them for it. Jones claimed so much of the praise and so much of the attention when England were running hot that logic demands he gets an equivalent share of the blame now they’ve gone cold.
Good Game, Dickhead/Good Management, Dickhead
His decision in replacing 20 year old lock Nick Isiekwe after 36 minutes of the first half in the first test is one which highlights the short-term nature of his thinking. When things are going well, that’s called decisiveness; when they’re not it’s reactionary. Johnny Sexton’s comments in a related field are relevant here: “It’s all outcome-based, isn’t it? If you go after it and win, it’s brilliant. If you don’t, then you look silly.”
The context of the substitution is important to bear in mind: South Africa had just scored three tries in fourteen minutes [from 20’ to 34’ on the clock] to take the lead, having flapped at England as they went into a 24-3 lead after just 18 minutes. It had been a harum-scarum opening half, with the ball being thrown around and no sense of defensive co-ordination on either side.
But it’s the first game of a three test tour, and in taking off Isiekwe – a 20 year old – after 35 minutes, you’ve made a scapegoat of him and essentially ended his tour. It’s so rare in rugby to take somebody off before halftime that the very act calls attention to the player and the decision. Replacing him at halftime –just four minutes later – would have appeared a relatively innocuous verdict on his first half performance. There was no need to publicly embarrass the player. It didn’t help England and will have put a massive dent in Isiekwe’s confidence at a time when England need all the positive thinking and energy that they can find.
Jones pulled the same trick in the first game of the 2016 Australian tour, replacing Luther Burrell after just 29 minutes. It ended Burrell’s test career, hurt his reputation and massively damaged his confidence.
Eddie Jones’ personality isn’t the sole source of their woes though. The nature of the English system is that the head coach of the national team has practically no control about how often his internationals play, the positions in which they’re selected, or their physical condition when they’re off national duty.
Musical Chairs In The Backline
These are legitimate difficulties for Jones, and prevent him from doing his job optimally. But they’re obstacles which he needs to get past – whether that is by formulating a strategy that avoids them or by getting over them on a case by case basis.
Over the last four seasons, Owen Farrell has started 62 games for Saracens at No10 and three  at No12; Jones has selected him at inside centre in that No12 jersey for 16 of the 17 tests he has started. Elliott Daly has played 84 games for Wasps over the same four-season period: 77 of them have been at outside centre [No13]. Jones has never selected him to play in that position for England.*
*Liar. It has just been pointed out to me that Jones picked Daly at No13 against South Africa in November 2016 – that somewhat dilutes the point, but it’s still similar to Farrell’s situation, in that the coach rarely selects him in the position where he plays the vast majority of games for his club.
This has been taken to a ludicrous degree with the selection of Mike Brown at wing. Brown has started 271 first class games for Harlequins [Heineken Cup, Challenge Cup and Premiership] over 12 seasons and every single one of them has been at fullback. Now that he’s almost 33 years old it’s time for him to play on the wing? He has been picked on the wing before for England [the last time in 2013], and he has given a relatively good account of himself in the position on the South African tour, but that only makes it a questionable decision instead of a bizarre one. Maybe I’m guilty of orthodox thinking in viewing the selection of a 32 year old fullback as a test wing as a dead end, but I’ll stand by that conservative view.
George Ford poses a different difficulty to Jones. And it’s a difficult one to assess and describe, but it rotates around the assumed primacy of the outhalf position, and the role of the key decision-maker on the pitch. Again, The Mole may be guilty of orthodoxy, but to understand my line of thought the key lies in the New Zealand nomenclature for the No10 and No12 jerseys: first five-eighth and second five-eighth. Primary and secondary.
Farrell’s authority in the No12 jersey can [and does] serve to undermine Ford. There’s nothing intentionally subversive about it from Farrell’s side, but his dominance in the English side – placekicker, linekicker, sometime captain, always outspoken onfield presence – means that Ford is frequently in his shadow, and that usurps the received [and well understood] logic of the outhalf as the general of the side.
Ford is a more mobile and evasive runner than Farrell [who was credited with 0m made for his 80 minutes in the second test against South Africa] and an outstanding passer of the ball, who possesses a nuanced if fallible kicking game and a well-developed understanding of how and where to attack on the rugby pitch. When considered in parallel with Farrell, in almost every manner he’s more suited to the second playmaker role, that job that typically alters the tactical nomenclature associated with No12 jersey in the general rugby fan’s internal monologue from inside centre to second five-eighth.
But he’s undersized and a weak tackler and lacks the physical power you need to play – especially to defend – in that midfield channel. You can’t play him at No12, as Stuart Lancaster unfortunately demonstrated in the RWC15 match against Wales. Lancaster subbed Burgess off at around 70 minutes with England leading, and the first thing that Wales did was run Roberts over Ford, get over the gainline and generate quick ball.
Ford’s pedigree precedes him – he was the youngest ever professional player in English rugby union, a former IRB/World Rugby Young Player of the Year, and an England U18 representative as a 15 year old. And for a guy who just turned 25 earlier this year, he has already accomplished an enormous amount – 190 first class pro games, including 47 English caps, and over 1500 points to his name .But his form hasn’t been very good for Leicester this term, and they slumped to fifth in the Premiership by season’s end, their worst finishing position in thirteen years in the league. That’s a bad advertisement for an outhalf. Matt O’Connor is Ford’s head coach at Leicester, and to be frank O’Connor’s recent record at getting anything like optimal play from his outhalves is dreadful. Both Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth went backwards under him during his stint as head coach at Leinster, and Ford’s play has fallen a long way short of his best since returning to Leicester and coming under O’Connor’s guidance.
The prosaic verdict on the Ford-Farrell axis is that it works until it doesn’t, and then you drop George Ford.
But then if you’re in Eddie Jones’ position do you swap in Danny Cipriani for more of the same – except with flicks and tantrums – or do you move Farrell inside to the position where his naturally dominant personality dictates he should play and try and find a distributing No12 to play outside him? The difficulty then lies in finding somebody to play as a second five-eighth for you. Ben Te’o plays both centre positions for Worcester Warriors, but a] they’re hopeless; b] he hardly plays for them; and c] his limited passing game hampers England’s pacy outside backs [May, Watson and Daly]. Te’o can offload with the best of them, but his distribution is better out of one hand than two, and he simply doesn’t have a kicking game.
Exeter’s Henry Slade looks like he might be a good fit, both in terms of his skillset and the experience he has built up in midfield positions over the last four seasons: his 83 starts for the Chiefs over that period were split into 19 at No10, 9 at No12, 54 at No13 and one at fullback. But Slade has been used almost exclusively as an outside centre by his club coach Rob Baxter this season: 21 of his 22 starts have come in the No13 jersey.
Jones’ working relationship with the Premiership clubs is piss-poor: he keeps on breaking their players in English training camps. Club coaches very likely wouldn’t move their players around at Jones’s behest – or his request – even at the best of times. It’s a business and Jones isn’t their boss to be giving them orders [“You’re not my supervisor!”]. Both sides are to blame in running down the quid pro quo between national team and club suppliers, but it has become a wilfully antagonistic relationship. Jones labelling Bruce Craig as “the Donald Trump of rugby” was, if not typical, illustrative: a pointless jibe in reaction to the Bath bigwig remonstrating with his training regime following Beno Obano’s brutal injury. It’s not that Jones should have to publicly apologise to Craig for Obano’s injury, but he didn’t get anything out of winding him up except having to publicly climb down. The Premiership club owners come across as difficult to the point of obnoxiousness in any case, and they’ve got the coach they deserve. And vice versa.
Everybody’s Wrong But Me!
At this stage we’ll talk about the second point mentioned in the introduction, England’s substandard performance at the breakdown in recent months. It’s a classic 3-1-2 approach: last point first, starting point in the middle, then middle point last. Now I’ll pull my arms out with my face.
At test level, any pack with a significant weakness will very likely be found out. Substandard scrums and malfunctioning line outs are very very obvious, because of the nature of a set-piece: it’s a fucking set-piece, static and laid out in front of you.
And in the second test against South Africa there were a lot of set pieces : a whopping 34 line outs [15 on the South African throw, 19 on the English throw] and 14 scrums. There were 13 restarts [the third set piece … not “almost like a third set piece”, but an actual set piece]: the kick-off at each half, the nine restarts following scores and two 22 drop-outs. So, all told there were 61 set pieces in the game – a high count by contemporary test match standards. But there were 139 rucks [76 with South Africa on the attack and 63 with England in possession] from 160 successful tackles, so more than twice as many breakdowns as set-pieces.It’s not as though England are oblivious to their shortcomings at the breakdown, and it’s not as though they don’t have players who can do a good job there – Mako Vunipola and Maro Itoje have both shown repeatedly that they can be as effective as anybody in their positions. But their league has decided to set itself up with different breakdown interpretations than the rest of the world. That’s not Celtic mud-slinging, just a statement of fact. The Premiership is solely refereed by members of the Professional Referees Unit [PRU]. The Mole’s understanding of the situation is that the Premiership wanted to employ the referees directly and exclusively, but that the referees themselves decided that they wanted to maintain their link with the RFU in order to allow themselves be selected for international duty – in doing this they would raise their profile within the game and also take World Rugby’s per diem. If the referees had taken the premium to be exclusively tied to the Premiership, they would be implicitly demoting themselves: the international game is the big ticket in rugby union, and if you’re not involved in the biggest games, most would infer it’s because you’re not good enough to be there.
The PRU have a very well-organised, open and [largely] positive relationship with both the Premiership clubs and the partner broadcaster, BT Sport. Coaches are invited to give their feedback and discuss elements of the game in front of the refs, and in return the officials are asked to attend training sessions to assist the players in their understanding of the game. Commentators will get in touch with the referees midweek to ask them to explain decisions or elucidate some of the technicalities of the laws.
Fitness standards are rigorous, peer review and mentoring is a consistent feature of the working week, and the distribution of fixtures amongst referees is thoughtful and well worked out. Each side will have a limit on the number of times they are refereed by the same official, and there’s a level of intelligence in how fixtures are handed out that takes into account current league position, past league positions, expected league positions and the history of the fixture.
Big teams don’t always get the big name referees. For example, if Saracens are playing Worcester at home, it’s a very likely home win that will be clear cut to the point that even bad refereeing decisions won’t have much of a difference to the result and, extrapolating that through the season, said decisions will have little impact on the expected positions of the two teams over the course of the season. However, a game between Worcester and London Irish will be afforded a serious, high quality referee: even relatively early in the season, that game is recognised as one that will have relegation implications for both sides, and it’s a priority to minimise the chance of a series of bad refereeing decision impacting on that.
Those are the positives, and they’re numerous. The negatives [for England] are that the referees have essentially decided amongst themselves that they will referee the game in a manner that implicitly denies the same level of contest for the ball at the breakdown as is experienced in every other competition in professional rugby. It’s done in order to promote continuity of both possession and time in play.It’s a question of emphasis and nuance, rather than a binary decision – it’s not like nobody in the Premiership jackals for the ball, or that the openside role is completely anathema to every coach in the league. But it’s a lost percentage point, to reference a frequently-voiced trope. Because of the way that the game is refereed, with a particularly strict interpretation of Law 14.8.a “[the player must] remain on their feet and release the ball and the ball-carrier immediately” in comparison with the rest of the world, there’s less incentive to try and poach the 50-50 chances. In practical terms, it’s disincentivised. If a player is frequently penalised for breakdown offences, he’ll attract more attention from the referee and concede more penalties … and anyone leaking penalties is likely to feel a pressured head coach’s ire.
It’s the discrepancy between the Premiership interpretation and the international interpretation that is hurting England so much; after all, all their players play in their domestic league. It’s what they know, what they’re coached to do, and what they think is right. And maybe it is a better way to interpret that one sentence [note that there’s no reference to “supporting your own bodyweight” or “rolling away from the tackle” in the law], but no other league, union or cohort of referees has decided to take up that line of judgment.
Reactions to the effects of the divergence in refereeing styles are tidal. The dissatisfaction typically swells in the English rugby media in October, after the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup, with Premiership players and coaches frequently bemoaning [with various levels of vigour] how ‘Celtic referees’ allow players to ‘lie all over the ball’. Then it goes into abeyance, to return in March if England get turned over during the Six Nations.Stopping The Bleeding
Jones has a lot of human resources at his disposal, but he has to work within the system that presents itself. There’s not a centrally contracted “Team England”, but a representative “English team” chosen from amongst the Premiership sides. Critics of the club-first system will say that the tail is wagging the dog, but looking at the argument with reference to the history of the game, it’s closer to how international teams were selected for the majority of the timeline of the sport – good performances for your club saw you rewarded by your country.
He can’t escape the Premiership influence, no matter how often he brings in George Smith to do breakdown clinics with his players.
There was a feeling when England were on their winning streak that Jones could do no wrong: he was a massively experienced coach who had won a lot of trophies, had been through the mill in both his personal and professional life and had come out the other side stronger and wiser. His jibes and wind-ups were treated as stratagems, and his candid appraisals of certain of his players’ short-comings were seen as refreshingly straightforward.
Some of the things he has said were accurate, and the fact that England are losing games and he is heavily criticised doesn’t mean that he was always wrong, or “just got lucky” in the past. It’s worth remembering that they had an epic run of wins in the very recent past, and while they look to have become a bad team overnight, they’re still a bad team full of good players.
Jones is currently trying to spin their dead rubber in Newlands, and The Mole doesn’t blame him for it in the slightest. What is he supposed to do, just bury his head in his hands, admit that the series was already gone and that it meant far less than a win in either the first or second matches? There’s no upside in that. England have finished with a slight uptick after what has been a poor-to-disastrous season. Jones is talking his team up when they’re down, just like he occasionally talked them down when they were riding high.
But England have certainly lost the fearsome reputation that they built in Jones’ first two seasons, and seem to have lost their way. They’re no longer reflective of their head coach, whether that be personified through the disciplined, humble disposition of the Robshaw/Lancaster era, or the blustering, aggressive nature of the Hartley/Jones biennium. Nothing is going to change for the better in terms of the relationship between the national team and the Premiership barons before RWC19, so Jones is going to have to rely solely on his coaching, selectorial and management skills in an attempt just to get England back to where they were 2016: 2017 really only saw them stagnate, and they have slipped backwards in 2018. That’s not the sort of momentum you want heading into a World Cup year.