Eddie Jones has been head coach of England rugby since November of 2015. His original four-year contract has been extended twice. He has secured the job through the 2023 World Cup in France, despite a woeful Six Nations this year.
Autumn in England means visits to Twickenham by the southern powers. This year, it is the Wallabies and Springboks who test Eddie’s team.
During Jones’ tenure, England is 7-0 against the Wallabies; 3-3 versus the Boks. Of course, the last Test against South Africa was the 20-point battering, and there will be a special edge to that fixture.
Dave Rennie has not had a crack at England yet, being restricted to seven Tests against the All Blacks (five losses), four Puma Tests (two wins, two draws), a 2-1 French series and a 2-0 whitewash of the world champions. All three teams will have circled their Twickers clashes in red.
2021 has been a nightmare for Jones. In the Six Nations, England slumped to fifth on the table, losing to Scotland at home for the first time in 38 years, conceding the most points ever to Wales, and utterly fading in Dublin.
An RFU-appointed panel conducted a review. The size and identify of the review panel was kept secret. Their findings found the campaign “sub-optimal,” identified systemic challenges, and spotted a handful contributory factors in England’s worst campaign in 45 years. No direct criticism was levelled at Jones, at all.
Five points in the review were:
1. Lack of game time for some; fatigue by a few overplayed players. This was a reference to Saracens players. Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell played little, if any, club rugby between the Autumn Nations Cup and the Six Nations. The Premiership’s midweek matches burned a few others out. This does not seem to make sense, because Covid gave many players breaks. Also, England has a large pool of Test players.
2. Absence and initial unavailability of certain assistant coaches. Jones’ rumoured poor relationship with Premiership coaches (foreclosing a secondment) was not discussed. His way of speaking through media is not the way Directors of Rugby prefer.
3. Breakdown indiscipline. The review was oddly specific: lower body strength was poor. This was a bit strange, because there are few rugby squads in the world with more gym strength than England. Also, Courtney Lawes has very skinny legs, but he gets in the right position at ruck time. Do you really want body builders?
4. Covid. Bubble protocols were tough, but were they tougher than England’s opposition?
5. Fixed squad. England had a 28-man squad, down from the typical 32 or 33. But, Jones still chose ‘project’ players, like teenager George Martin, who made his debut against Ireland.
The Wallaby and Springbok Tests provide RFU and Jones the acid test. Has there been “greater alignment” between the England team and the clubs to find “common ground and goals for the English game moving forward?” as the review called for? What is Jones’ rugby style path to France in 2023? Is it speed on the ball? Is it speed of clearance? Is it 5-phase plus?
The review called for “increasing speed of the game” in the Premiership, even though Jones’ team did very well with a defensive-territorial-kicking game in the Autumn Nations Cup. The clubs must have been confused by being blamed in an RFU review for not preparing their players for Jones’ style, if he had shown every sign in 2020 of trying to fix the 32-12 defeat to the Boks, by playing more like the Boks.
The last time a Jones-coached team scored a lot of points in three consecutive matches was in the 2016 tour of Australia, when England scored 39, 23, and 44 points, which saw them rise to a world ranking of number two. A happy ending to the year was a 37–21 win over the Boks, and an identical 37–21 win over Australia. It was 2017 before Jones had his first loss as England coach.
2018 was a poor year for England, with consecutive losses to Scotland, France and Ireland, a loss to the Barbarians, and a series loss to South Africa.
2019 ended with a World Cup final appearance, in which Jones’ team was overpowered by South Africa, with both sides losing key players early, but the Bok depth and impact from the Bomb Squad was the difference.
It makes sense Jones has been obsessed with how to right that wrong.
Also, having a perfect record against his old team, the Wallabies, a union which fired him, is supremely motivational for Jones.
The problem for him is beating both the Wallabies and Boks in back-to-back weeks is a bit of rugby conundrum. New Zealand has the most experience in accomplishing this tough feat. Jones has home field advantage, but the selection-and-game-plan problem remains of playing fast and tricky enough to overcome Australia on November 13, and then seven days later, mounting enough of a physical bulwark and having the patience to lock horns with brutal Boks.
England only scored 112 points in five Six Nations Tests, with a chunk of that achieved against Italy.
A Rennie-coached team is fit and ready to score. An Erasmus-Nienaber team is bloody-minded and rarely concedes constructed tries. Jones has a puzzle.
How has he tried to solve the riddle?
First, he named six more players than he had in the Six Nations: 34. That excuse is now no longer on the table.
Second, he has veered more towards speed and leg drive, and away from set piece expertise and experience. Set piece operator par excellence Jamie George was initially a casualty, along with the heavy Vunipola brothers. George has been recalled after being left out.
George Ford may loom large in Jones’ mind for the World Cup final loss. Ford was neutralised by a revved-up Bok pack, especially man marker Pieter-Steph du Toit. The extra mobility of Harlequin hero Marcus Smith is perceived as the tonic.
This sets up an interesting dilemma at 10 and 12, with 93-cap Owen Farrell retaining the captaincy.
Is it Smith-Farrell or Farrell-Tuilagi? Why select 31-year old Mark Atkinson if you don’t play him at all? Is he the English Esterhuizen? Is Henry Slade’s luck going to change?
At No.2 and No.9, Jones has tended to cycle through a dozen understudies, but just end up picking Ben Youngs (who arguably had more to do with the 32-12 loss than Ford) and frustrating George. Uncapped Raffi Quirke, mentored by Faf de Klerk at Sale, may get a rude shock if he is in against the likes of Nic White or Cobus Reinach. Or he may be the find of the year.
At scrum time, Joe Marler will presumably get a chance to show he is the answer to Bok power. But young prop Will Stuart might also get a chance.
Maro Itoje will have to recover in time; Lions tourists appear to have been almost shattered by the experience. Few have played, and some of those have been injured immediately. One tight forward with a reputation to salvage is Jonny Hill, who seems to make an equal number of awful and great plays in games, and was not given a chance by Warren Gatland to front Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
Sam Underhill and Tom Curry may play together against the Wallabies. Against the Boks, the choice of No 8 (clever Alex Dombrandt or lower-body athlete Sam Simmonds) will be fascinating. But pushing for selection will also be Callum Chick of the Falcons and Lewis Ludlam of the Saints.
All of England’s rugby world is raving over 23-year old Adam Radwan, the out-and-out gasman. But there’s speed, and then there’s African speed. Jonny May, with his guile in the air, and use of the sideline, surely will add to his 70 caps.
Nobody can predict which one of the four fullbacks (total caps: 14 for all four) will start against the kick-happy Boks. Max Malins is the Saracens player of the season, so far. George Furbank rarely puts a foot wrong for the Saints. But 20-year old Freddie Steward is being talked up as England’s Christian Cullen.
This series will either cap off the worst England season in ages, perhaps ever; or show signs of new life, and please English fans as they look ahead to 2023?
So, have the English Premiership clubs, freed from fear of relegation this season, aligned with the speed up plan of Jones?
The unbeaten Leicester (6-0) is the second-most penalised team (13.8 penalties per match), with a style that has required them to make 133 tackles a game (second most), and averaging only 81 carries per game (compared to 141 for Exeter and 120 by struggling Bristol), and a league low of 101 passes per match (Exeter complete 188 a game).
Bath has yet to win, but is beating the most defenders per carry (26% of runs beat at least one defender). Harlequins make breaks on almost 9% of their carries; Exeter on less than 4%.
The best guess is Australia will score against England (perhaps Louis Lynagh will be in the Wallaby 23!) and South Africa will stop England.
Leaving Eddie Jones in more of a muddle than he is, now.
Forwards: Jamie Blamire (Newcastle), Callum Chick (Newcastle), Tom Curry (Sale), Trevor Davison (Newcastle), Nic Dolly (Leicester), Alex Dombrandt (Harlequins), Charlie Ewels (Bath), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Jonny Hill (Exeter), Maro Itoje (Saracens), Courtney Lawes (Northampton), Lewis Ludlam (Northampton), Joe Marler (Harlequins), George Martin (Leicester), Sam Simmonds (Exeter), Kyle Sinckler (Bristol), Will Stuart (Bath), Sam Underhill (Bath). Addition: Jamie George (Saracens)
Backs: Mark Atkinson (Gloucester), Owen Farrell (Saracens), Tommy Freeman (Northampton), George Furbank (Northampton), Max Malins (Saracens), Jonny May (Gloucester), Raffi Quirke (Sale), Adam Radwan (Newcastle), Harry Randall (Bristol), Henry Slade (Exeter), Marcus Smith (Harlequins), Freddie Steward (Leicester), Manu Tuilagi (Sale), Ben Youngs (Leicester). Addition: Joe Marchant (Harlequins)