Eddie Jones is one of the great coaches and greatest rugby strategists of the last 20 years.
Obsessive, ultra focussed, driven and demanding, Jones is currently England coach, but as former Wallabies coach, 2007 Rugby World Cup Springboks assistant coach and Japan national coach on call, he has a most impressive CV. It’s also clear that he’s improved as a coach since his ill-fated stint with the Queensland Reds in the middle of the last decade.
Shortly after the 2019 Rugby World Cup final Jones made the intriguing admission that he made an incorrect team selection call in the front row, where he should have picked Joe Marler ahead of Mako Vunipola. For a man known for keeping his cards close to his chest, this was a revelation indeed.
Fast forward to the 2020 Six Nations and Eddie Jones has made an interesting tactical choice by picking excellent fetcher Tom Curry at No. 8.
Watching the England-France game in Paris last weekend, it was clear that Curry has neither the game experience nor the technical nous to play No. 8, unable to lock the scrum defensively and unable to manage the ball at the back of the scrum when the pack was moving forward. His impact at the breakdown was lessened also, so France back rowers Gregory Alldritt and Charles Ollivon were able to shine.
This is no intended slight on Curry, who is one of the best open slide flankers in Europe. It’s only to say that he was played out of position and his game management and confidence suffered as a result.
No. 8 fetchers are uncommon. The only one I can think of is Steffon Armitage, who played No. 8 and fetcher for Toulon alongside JM Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Smith in the 2014 European Rugby Champions Cup final against Saracens.
So the question is: With Billy Vunipola injured, who are the alternatives?
Harrison has played well for Northampton over the years. He can sometimes go missing in games – he was hooked at half-time by Jones in one of his early Tests – and he has a bit of a temper on him, perhaps from Dylan Hartley’s influence!
Hughes was brilliant during his career at Wasps, with speed, size, athleticism and the strength of a Mallee bull. He’s been much quieter at Test level for England, and apparently Bristol coach Pat Lam has been helping him work towards sustaining his powers and motivation for 80 minutes, just obviously not enough the persuade Jones.
I think opposition national coaches sleep better in the knowledge that England are playing and Dombrandt is tucked away in south-east London. Dombrandt is a big, fast, strong, intelligent rugby player with good hands and excellent rugby instincts. Consistently one of Harlequins best performers, Dombrandt’s non-selection is a complete mystery, especially given Curry’s difficulties at No. 8.
So come the final round of the Six Nations in mid-March the question will be: will Eddie Jones be called on to make any more intriguing admissions?