After just two wins in an apparently dismal Six Nations campaign the English RFU is to carry out a review effectively pondering the future of England’s Australian Head Coach Eddie Jones.
This agitates me a little because throughout the past year, in these strangest of times, there have been occasions when Eddie has sounded like the sanest public voice in any arena let alone the England coaching set up. Problems are opportunities to get better. The next game is the most important game. Keep Calm and Carry On.
And yet here he is, second from bottom in the table at the end of the Six Nations. In the campaign that has just finished England managed wins against the worst and the best sides in the tournament: Italy and France.
The defeats to Scotland, Wales and Ireland were not wholly woeful performances but this has only made them more difficult to respond to because they widen the field of speculation about what the problem might be.
You could, for instance, tick them off in the following manner: Scotland – this was the first game in the tournament and the Saracens-based core of England’s squad were ring rusty and traumatised from the fallout of their club troubles, plus it was Scotland; Wales – the referee was the most talked about element of the game afterwards plus it was Wales; Ireland – the tournament was unsaveable by this stage… plus it was Ireland.
The hottest criticism charges England with a lack of imagination on the field and a selection policy that seems to show blind loyalty to a senior group which is difficult for newcomers to break into.
My gut instinct to all this, as a devout Northampton Saints fan, is to offer up the general England fan the unsteady times we have been through as an example of what holding your nerve really looks like. And also, you know, Covid. The bigger the organisation, the bigger the problem Covid has been.
England is the richest union with the largest player base but this also means it is supposed to be the mothership. It should be a model of best practice and excellence. It is reasonable to expect unreasonable things of it. Whether England likes it or not it is a giant of the game and therefore will always either be a dominating Titan or a lumbering buffoon. It’s the curse of the shirt and there is no escaping it.
To some degree it is also Eddie’s own fault. Not in the obvious, the buck stops with Eddie type way but more in the cultural change his methodology has brought to management processes perhaps even beyond sport. It is clear from his book and interviews the systems he uses are driven by logic and evidence based assessment. They are inspired by the science of teaching and coaching that has emerged amid the great computer-enabled boom in measuring things of the past 50 years. Based on a learning cycle of planning, action, reflection and adjustment it is now logical for the RFU to assess the situation at the end of a tournament.There is an undeniable force to the logic of Eddie’s methods and by reviewing his work the RFU, if not endorsing his methods by using them, is at least speaking his language.
The evidence and analysis based methods have also spread throughout the rugby world. Coaches who have worked with Eddie are now successful in their own right. Excellent training is no longer a point of difference for England. It is a minimum requirement and perhaps this is the chink in Eddie’s armour. Is the professionalism of English rugby ironing out the spark of genius, the mysterious something extra?
There has been a bizarre promise from the RFU not to be overly influenced by the fact that overall, Eddie Jones has a superb record at his job. Irrespective of what you think of Eddie’s record, it’s a sobering moment for any employee when your boss proudly reassures people they aren’t overly influenced by the things you have done right. He got England to a World Cup Final which in entertainment terms delivers exactly the same amount of emotionally invested rugby watching time as winning it, if not the post match celebrations. Yes winning it is better but if you can say ‘Clive Woodward brings the party’ with a straight face you are a better person than me.
For me it would be madness to get rid of Eddie Jones now, unless the argument is that we have tried sanity and we are giving madness a go. As a Saints fan I feel like I’ve lived through that a couple of times…