Rising from the World Cup rubble
Rising from the World Cup rubble
“This is like queuing up to read an obituary.”
Overheard as supporters gathered outside Manchester’s Etihad Stadium before England’s final game of the 2015 Rugby World Cup against Uruguay, this was one of those wry observations that condense situations with cutting accuracy. Already eliminated after defeats to Wales and Australia, the hosts laboured to a 60-3 triumph – the dampest of squibs with which to bring to an end years of anticipation.
Since then, winds of change have blown through Twickenham. One month on, in mid-November, Stuart Lancaster’s tenure as head coach ended. Eight days later, Eddie Jones assumed the role. He dispensed with assistants Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt within a fortnight. By the end of December, the RFU had negotiated contract releases for Bristol forwards guru Steve Borthwick and Saracens’ defensive mastermind Paul Gustard. Fast Eddie, indeed.
Jones turns 56 on Saturday, and has a reputation for straight-talking and success. Encouragingly, World Cups form the peaks on his vast résumé. He guided Australia to the 2003 final and was a technical advisor to champions South Africa in 2007. Alongside Borthwick, a trusted lieutenant from a spell with Saracens, Jones engineered Japan’s efforts this time around.
The last-play defeat of the Springboks represented an all-time tactical feat. Heyneke Meyer’s heavyweights were outthought and overrun. Wins over Samoa and USA put Japan 10th in the world rankings. But Jones walked out, citing a lack of administerial ambition.
RFU money unshackled him from a gig with Cape Town’s Stormers, and now he is at the sport’s richest union with the world’s largest player base. The Aviva Premiership is a commercial beast that needs careful management. Besides that, Jones can pour hard work, energy and enthusiasm – the mantra he stressed at the squad announcement – into on-field matters.
Strategically, England need a nudge into modernity. That said, Jones’ archetypally Australian competitiveness will not tolerate a transitional spell of underwhelming results, even if his first assignment brings him to Murrayfield. Since 2003, England’s sole Six Nations Championship (in 2011) ranks them behind France (four tournament victories), Wales (four), and Ireland (three) – an embarrassing statistic.
Twin priorities mean Jones might flit between short and long-term selections. Regardless, a four-pronged rebuilding blueprint remains.
The contrast between the scrummaging of Japan and England during the World Cup was stark. Jones charged Marc Dal Maso with Japan’s scrum, previously an area of inferiority. The ex-France prop refined body positions and honed a means of moving the ball away as quickly as possible, hookers striking to send it back to the base.
It worked wonderfully. Despite their starting pack giving away more than six kilograms per man to South Africa, Japan won all seven of their own put-ins in the 34-32 fairytale.
Conversely, England attempted to bully penalties. When Fiji and Australia caused problems, a contingency plan was lacking. Similar clumsiness translated to their lineout, which went awry at vital times. Japan’s lineout, overseen by meticulous technician Borthwick, fashioned tries from rolling mauls and midfield strike moves.
Traditional qualities of a hooker are fundamental to this resourcefulness. Leicester Tiger Tom Youngs, a ferocious force in the loose, was consequently discarded at the expense of new captain Dylan Hartley, who has previously skippered Northampton, Saracens’ Jamie George and Exeter Chiefs tyro Luke Cowan-Dickie. While reluctant to divulge specific reasons for the converted centre’s omission, an assertion from Borthwick – “our hookers will have to hook” – said it all.
Steve Thompson, the most decorated No 2 in England’s history, believes Youngs is immensely unlucky. Having appeared alongside Borthwick for a large portion of his 73 caps, he gives an amusing slant on the former lock’s diligence.
“Steve’s a geek when it comes to the set-piece,” Thompson recalls. “I wouldn’t say he was the best international player. I don’t think he would either. What he did have was a work ethic like nobody else. He wasn’t the fastest or the strongest or the most athletic. But his rugby brain was outstanding. Most of the time, those guys make the best coaches.
“He won’t stand for anyone not knowing the lineout calls or anyone not doing it right in the scrum or the mauls. He’ll make sure everyone knows their job on every single play. He’s probably a better signing than Eddie Jones himself.”
Borthwick and Dal Maso’s set-piece planning elevated Japan to something more than the sum of their individual parts. The former, with highly rated scrum specialist Ian Peel alongside him for the Six Nations, now has abundant raw materials. Though first-choice tighthead Dan Cole has suffered a slump in form, understudy Paul Hill, fast-tracked at 20, has mighty potential.
On the loosehead side, Mako Vunipola is in formidable fettle. Athleticism laces the second-row options, from established Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury to new faces Maro Itoje and Josh Beaumont via George Kruis, a fine organiser.
As Thompson belligerently states, “dominance” is the goal. But variation and adaptability will come with Borthwick’s appetite for detail.
Failure to control the ruck has derailed England in pivotal encounters in recent years. Their 30-3 Cardiff capitulation in 2013 and a 19-9 reverse to Ireland last season cost Grand Slams. At the World Cup, Wales squeezed the breakdown during a decisive second period. Then Australia’s turnover monster David Pocock ate England up.
Lancaster’s perseverance with captain Chris Robshaw at openside flanker attracted huge blame. In truth, collective balance was the issue. England’s back row was slightly too clunky. Robshaw’s industry is unparalleled, and he should start on the blindside – his best position, as Harlequins performances confirm – against Scotland.
Looking ahead, Jones is keen for a seven capable of facilitating an expansive style if conditions permit. Richard Hill, the 2003 alumnus now part of the RFU’s player development department, is monitoring Sam Underhill, a 19-year-old starring for Welsh region Ospreys while studying at Cardiff University. Watch that space.
Neil Back, Hill’s long-time partner in crime, is heartened. A Premiership that “has not moved forward as quickly as the game in other parts of the world” is reforming.
“For too long, we have had an eight and two sixes,” Back says. “We haven’t had a pure seven, reaching the first contact with real speed and breakdown intelligence. On attack, they need excellent clear-out skills to retain the ball.
“It’s also that guy who can stand at first receiver or at nine and move the ball on. There is a lot of development to happen. But change in the Premiership itself, with an emphasis on attack, will translate to England.”
Respectful of a Scotland side on the up, Jones has hinted that James Haskell will begin the Six Nations alongside Robshaw and No 8 Billy Vunipola. Back does not mind that, as long as it is merely a “bridging option” to ease the introduction of dynamic youngsters.
Gloucester’s arch-scavenger Matt Kvesic is another possibility, although Jack Clifford appears to be the coming man. The skipper of England Under-20’s maiden Junior World Championship victory in 2013 is a prodigious carrier. Defensively, his tackle-area opportunism and strength over the ball, where Kvesic is a class act, could be sharper.
Fortunately, one contact in Jones’ phone book is George Smith. The Wallabies great and current Wasp, a pioneer in the practice of pilfering brought to the Brumbies by Jones at 19, led a session with England’s back-rowers on Wednesday. It might prove to be a game-changer.
Like Lancaster, Jones’ background lies in school teaching. Like Lancaster, he has chatted to management professionals, business execs and, as he says with a grin, “people smarter than me”. In November 2014, Jones travelled to Germany to watch Bayern Munich train.
His awe is palpable as he describes superstars Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Thomas Muller “dripping with sweat” after a series of drills in temperatures of -4°C. Pep Guardiola’s “bloody brilliant” methods fascinated Jones. When the pair spoke subsequently, Guardiola revealed rugby and handball were two influences he leant on in terms of moving the ball into space.
Jones has taken it upon himself to coordinate England’s attack. BBC pundit Jerry Guscott, an effortlessly gifted centre in the 1990s, believes “four or five ball-carriers” up front is a must. Certainly, if Itoje and Clifford dovetail with barnstorming siblings Mako and Billy Vunipola, their fleet-footed colleagues can thrive.
It is telling that none of the fly-halves or centres in England’s 33-man group are over 24. Three – Elliot Daly, Sam Hill and Ollie Devoto – are uncapped. Even if the latter two are injury replacements for Henry Slade and Manu Tuilagi, youthful minds are, theoretically, more flexible with fresh information. And Jones might do a bit of tinkering.
The midfield, a problem area for so long, will not settle straightaway. Despite sublime displays at fly-half for Saracens, Owen Farrell is a good bet to start at inside centre in Edinburgh. Guscott is not convinced.
“This is where we have to trust in Eddie – whether he’s right that players can be successful in positions where they aren’t getting regular game-time for their clubs,” he says. “From the outside, I don’t think Owen Farrell is an inside centre. I would like someone there who can get across the gain-line.
“You want a backline to be able to score tries from 50 yards just as easily as from five yards. If you played Farrell at 12, whoever is at 13 would have to come in to take the ball over the gain-line.
“A midfield of George Ford, Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly would look great on the front foot, but when you’re in a tough period, you need some grunt and you need some heft. It won’t be there.”
Jones possesses the personality to challenge his charges to raise the overall standard of decision-making. Tuilagi has been earmarked as a 12 who could become a distributor in the same manner as New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu, who also added kicking skills on the way to lifting the Webb Ellis Cup twice.
Tuilagi should be involved against Wales if he proves his fitness for Leicester. In the meantime, Exeter’s Sam Hill is a gain-line breaking option. To complicate matters, Tuilagi might end up wearing 13 on the road to 2019. The Australian custom is to deploy playmakers at 10 and 12, where Slade seems a perfect fit. A clue comes in how Japan set up last autumn, with uncompromising Male Sa’u steaming in on acute angles from outside centre.
Jones bumped into Jonny Wilkinson during a supermarket shop a fortnight ago. Now retired for more than 18 months, Wilkinson was on his way to do some kicking practice. Old habits die hard. Jones is to consult Wilkinson on an “informal basis”. The midfield is likely to be the subject of some brain-picking.
Though back spasms limited his involvement in England’s World Cup preparations, Nick Easter so nearly made Lancaster’s final squad. When a knee injury ruled out Billy Vunipola, the Harlequin was whisked into the group. As such, Easter’s memories of clouded thinking carry significant weight:
“We should have carried on how we were going during the Six Nations. We had a good forward pack. We had a style of play with ball in hand that was beginning to work. Then we began trying to cover all bases. At the very top level, you have to work out what your strengths are and play to them.”
Jones and Borthwick are adamant that their side’s set-piece can rise again. Easter, left out of this Six Nations party, agrees. For him, World Cup woes were a temporary blip. England’s scrum has traditionally been “feared by the rest of the world”, which is “nothing to be ashamed of”.
‘Culture’ became a tired buzzword of the Lancaster regime. Eventually, its meaning evaporated. Above all, Jones wants to tie everything together to cultivate a definitive identity: “If at the end of four years you understood how England tried to win, then we’d have been successful.” This resonates with Easter. Catchphrases do not manufacture cohesion.
“It is about being able to tell people hard truths,” Easter adds. “You enjoy each other, you’re not going to be best mates with everyone, but you have a common goal. That’s a good start.
“When you haven’t got a common goal and you don’t get on with some people in the room, that’s when it starts to disintegrate a bit.”
Besides Tom Youngs, Jones has cast a few of Lancaster’s trusted leaders aside. Tom Wood and Geoff Parling are two big voices to go as the slate was scrubbed. Jones has, however, pursued the counsel of Lancaster, whom he calls a “real gentleman”.
Robshaw’s presence suggests painful lessons will be heeded. Eight of the 33 have graduated from the England Under-20 side since Lancaster ascended to head of international performance development alongside head-coach duties in January 2013. Should the RFU have kept him in a backroom entity? That is another story.
Before Christmas, Mike Brown, part of the World Cup debacle, aired concerns about trust after stinging media revelations – the kit man’s financial advice, a Cipriani-Catt spat, Sam Burgess. One final Jones wise crack nips this in the bud.
“I trust all [the players]. So they have got to trust me. I am not going back over old grievances between them.
“You talk about culture. Culture is about doing things right. If players have got a problem from the past, they will need to sort that out, not me. I’ll send them down the pub, give them £10 each and they can sort it out.”
A tenner will not get them tipsy these days. Still, Jones’ unfussy, old-school ethos holds firm. His knowledge, drive and directness can provide England with the impetus they need to evolve. Hold the press on another obituary.