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ANALYSIS: Why Eddie was sacked by England, and what he must change to succeed this time around

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31st January, 2023
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“Love is lovelier, the second time around.” Those are the opening words of an old Frank Sinatra hit from the early 1960s. They crystallize the ultimate test of second chances facing Eddie Jones now, as the new coach of the Wallabies, in a reprise of the role he previously held at the start of the noughties.

The second line of the song is “Just as wonderful, with both feet on the ground.” When the afflatus of Eddie’s return to his homeland has washed away, the real challenges become clear. There has been a flood of articles backing the gifts he will bring, including one of my own. Now it’s time to play the Devil’s Advocate, and see what could go wrong.

Sooner or later, the same questions will be raised in Australia as there were in England, about the recruitment and retention of a top-class coaching staff and the treatment of players – especially younger players. The intense hothouse environments Eddie Jones creates do not bring the best out of everyone.

The Randwick man likes to run tough ‘make-em-or-break-em’ boot camps, but towards the end of his time with England one tirade reportedly reduced young Saracens wing Max Malins to tears. An inside source quoted by The Times claimed, “It’s been seven years of players being relieved to be out of England camps, going back to their clubs. There are very few who felt comfortable in that environment.”

More intensity means quicker burn-out, and an Eddie regime is as hard on the coaches and backroom staff it is on the players. The turnover of assistant coaches with England was astonishing: a tally of 18 in seven years – four Forwards, Defence and Skills specialists apiece, three Attack coaches, two special Consultants, one Team Manager and a partridge in a pear tree.

The problem with a more rapid exhaustion of resources is that quality becomes scarce and harder to find. Nobody could compare Eddie’s staff at the 2019 World Cup (John Mitchell, Steve Borthwick and Scott Wisemantel) with their equivalents at the end of his tenure (Brett Hodgson/Anthony Seibold, Richard Cockerill and Martin Gleeson). The first group contains two national head coaches and one of the best offensive minds in the game; the second does not have anything like the same profile. That matters.

If Jones burns through assistants at the same rate in Australia, then 12 or 13 will have passed through the meat grinder by the time Eddie reaches the 2027 World Cup. The loss of coaching IP associated with that run of second, third and even fourth comings becomes more important the deeper into his contractual term that Eddie Jones goes.

If he makes it to the finish-line. Eddie’s other two major roles with top-tier nations both ended mid-term, before his contract was due to expire and before a second World Cup ever arrived. It is worth looking at some of the raw stats from his time with Australia (2001-2005) and England (2016-2022).

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PeriodWin rate%
2001-200354%
2004-200547%
2016-201974%
2020-202254%

The table illustrates Eddie Jones’ results against the top-tier nations in the north (England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France) and the south (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina) during his two major periods-in-office.

The time frame with Australia is more compressed than it is with England (five years compared to seven) but the outstanding take-away is the same: a big drop-off in performance after the first World Cup peak has passed. Jones fell away to 3-9-0 (win-loss-draw) in his last season with the Wallabies and to 6-9-1 over his last two years with England.

It suggests that the issues when they come, will arise not in 2023 when an established Wallaby team may experience the big upward ‘bounce’ that Eddie can give them; but between 18 months and two years later, when he is trying to build a new side for the second World Cup in his coaching cycle.

Just as with a good book or with three-field rotation in farming, there are typically three phases of team-building in sports: a beginning (seeding), a middle (growth/maturity) and an end (elimination/renewal). The phase that remains an ongoing challenge for Eddie Jones is the third part of that trifecta.

It comes in the form of replacing older players or coaches with new ones, while maintaining the tactical integrity of the units within the team. Eddie is not good at leaving fields fallow and letting them recover their strength organically. Everything, and everyone has to be ‘driven’, all the time.

There are also some coaching blind-spots. The last game of Jones’ first Wallaby tenure was against Wales on 26th November 2005. I was working as an analyst/consultant for the Red Dragon at the time.

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Australia were still full of global stars in the backs where George Gregan, Lote Tuqiri, Chris Latham and a young Drew Mitchell all started. But Eddie fielded a makeshift number 10 in Mat Rogers and three suspect scrummagers at prop in Matt Dunning, Dave Fitter and Al Baxter. That is where we attacked them, and Wales won the match by 24 points to 22, our first victory in 18 years.

Fast forward to the same day 17 years later, to the last match of his England era at Twickenham, against the world champions South Africa. The situation was not so very different at all. England were suspect in the set-pieces, winning their scrum and lineout percentages in the 60s, compared to the Springboks’ 90s. The graft bedding in Marcus Smith alongside veteran Owen Farrell in midfield had not taken.

First, the scrum. It was Eddie’s chance to show that the lessons of the loss at the 2019 World Cup final had been well and truly learned, that the outcome would be lovelier the second time around. After the 2019 World Cup, he had published a memoir in which he stated:

“I accept that I made two selection mistakes for the final.

“I should have chosen Joe Marler ahead of Mako Vunipola at loose-head prop as he was always the best scrummaging loosehead we had.”

Come the rematch, and England were still starting the same front row as they had in back in 2019, and Mako Vunipola was still facing probably the most destructive tight-head scrummager in the world, Frans Malherbe.

England had given up five scrum penalties to the Boks at Yokohama, and they still lost five scrums to either penalty or free-kick at Twickenham. The scrum was a significant factor in a 27-13 home loss which was every bit as decisive as their defeat three years earlier:

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It is the same story, more or less, in all three scrums. Mako tries to go for the long left-arm bind after ‘set’ and becomes over-extended. His longer body-line cannot contain the power of Malherbe’s second effort and a slight movement towards the centre of the scrum means that he crumbles in the tunnel. The only surprise was that the Western Province strongman’s most crushing triumph (in the second example) was rewarded ironically, with a penalty to England.

In his autobiography, Eddie went on to say that his second selection error occurred at number 10:

“I should have reverted to the Owen Farrell-Manu Tuilagi-Henry Slade midfield we used against Australia.

“George Ford could have come off the bench when we had got into the game. But you never know until the game starts. You use the best available evidence and rely on your gut.”

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He could have started the same midfield he recommended with the benefit of hindsight at Twickenham, but again he chose not to take his own advice. Jones stuck with the Smith-Farrell axis instead, when the shape of the game was crying out for the presence of Smith on the bench rather than in the starting line-up.

Smith left the field after 60 minutes and only enjoyed eight touches at first receiver. Sounds familiar? Four of those touches were kicks, the department of the game at which he is least expert. Three of the four runs and passes ran straight into turnover trouble. Here are the two passes:

In the second clip, first Farrell on the run, then Smith on the pass try their luck at first receiver on two consecutive plays, and both the outcomes are negative. England could not get anything going on attack until Henry Slade came on to complete Eddie’s published recommendation for the final 20 minutes, the only quarter of the game which England won (7-0).

I examined Eddie’s reluctance to use Marcus Smith as his principal distributor and decision-maker in this issue of ‘Coach’s Corner’ back in December. The mercurial Harlequins’ pivot ended up chasing the play rather than organising it. He was emphatically not the captain of his own ship, or the master of his own fate. Dave Rennie’s Australia experienced much the same problems in the course of 2022.

When Marcus kicked, it was usually on South Africa’s terms. Three of his four high kicks had negative outcomes, with the fourth setting the scene for the best try of the match:

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On first phase Smith stops Farrell with the pass, then Farrell halts Manu Tuilagi, and the Samoan-born centre has to use every ounce of his considerable power just to struggle back to a spot two metres behind the advantage-line.

After Billy Vunipola is held up tamely on second phase, Smith puts boot to ball with the Boks’ return team opposed by only one back and two front-rowers and half the width of the field to work in. It is an inviting prospect and they take it with both hands. Kurt-Lee Arendse converts the score by beating Smith to the corner flag, one-on-one to complete the circle.

Summary

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Despite a glittering 30-year coaching resumé, some questions remain unanswered about Eddie Jones. Love may be lovelier the second time around, but there are no guarantees that second chances will produce better results for rugby coaches. Australian supporters had better get their feet back on the ground in a hurry, if they began to waft away on the zephyr of hype and hope surrounding his return to native shores.

There are plenty of lessons still to be digested if the Randwick man’s second stint with the Wallabies is to be more successful than his first back in 2001. He will need to hang on to quality assistants for longer, and treat some of his younger charges more sympathetically – or at least, find a better balance between carrot and stick, if the reported experience of some England players is a reliable form-line.

As Northampton Saints captain Lewis Ludlam recently commented after Steve Borthwick’s first England training camp: “The main difference is how we’re talking about the way we want to play. We’re getting a real clarity on the way England want to play, and the emotional connection as well.”

Eddie Jones will also need to show that the lessons he says he has learned, have really been absorbed at the level where a change can be made. England’s performances against South Africa at Yokohama in 2019 and at Twickenham in 2022 did not show any improvement at all. The same selection mistakes were made three years later. It was a simple case of rinse-and-repeat.

The Wallabies will in all likelihood receive the benefit of a big Eddie ‘bounce’ in eight months’ time. But what about the following World Cup cycle, when the likes of James Slipper, Michael Hooper, Nic White and Quade Cooper are no longer around, and mature growths have to be replaced by new seeds?

If burn-out becomes a factor, there is a chance that RA may foreclose on Eddie before he pays his dues. A flash-in-the pan, a meteor sweeping across the sky is not what Australian rugby needs right now. Feet on the ground, steady growth from the ground up, continuity and consistency. That does the trick, every time.

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