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Did Eddie Jones squander, or empower England’s golden generation? What will happen for Australia?

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Roar Rookie
20th July, 2023
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Yokohama, Japan. 7pm Saturday 26 October to 6pm Saturday 2 November 2019.

For almost exactly a week, England and their charismatic Australian coach Eddie Jones looked like they were about to reach the undisputed summit of the rugby world. With every chance of staying there.

As the English players sportingly consoled their black-clad foes, sprawled disconsolately on the International Stadium turf, they felt the satisfaction of perhaps the greatest victory in their country’s history. It wasn’t just an extremely rare win over the All Blacks, it was utterly comprehensive and just when it mattered most. OK, maybe not quite the most…

Eddie and his assistants had owned the coaching battle. New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, encouraged by his team’s line out dominance over England the previous year, picked a third lock, Scott Barrett, and dropped his only open side flanker, Sam Cane. Jones picked two open sides, the “torpedo twins” Sam Underhill and Tom Curry.

England dominated the gain line and breakdown, meaning that New Zealand simply couldn’t get into the game. They even had an edge in the line out which Hansen had staked everything on, securing their own feeds with a series of creative plays and using the Mr Tickle armed Maro Itoje to disrupt kiwi ball.

After such a commanding performance in the semi final by a fairly young team against the long time kings of the sport, who could possibly beat them a week later? And with their massive playing numbers, Twickenham cash cow and continued success at Under 20 level – three wins and three runner ups in the past six years – surely they could look forward to a long period of success.

It was golden generation after golden generation, with a master coach masterminding the very top of the pyramid.

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Today we will look at why none of that happened, with English rugby and their talismanic coach rapidly falling from grace. We’ll evaluate Eddie’s performance as coach and try to predict how he might tackle the Wallaby job. Is he what they need these next five years?

First though, let’s tell the story of how they got there.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

LANCASTER’S NEW GOLDEN GENERATION

England are one of rugby’s big five nations who expect their golden generations to compete in World Cup finals and hopefully win them. As we described in the first article of this series, for England this had happened in 1991 and twelve years later in 2003. That generation hung in there for another final appearance in 2007 but by 2011 Le Rosbifs were going crispy in their Aga, dogged by a series of ill-disciplined scandals.

The good news for England though was that their youth system was starting to fire. A new generational cycle was about to begin with a new coach.

The 2012-15 England coach Stuart Lancaster made a lot of well documented tactical errors. What fewer people talk about is that he got the big strategic call right. He prioritised youth to kickstart the new generational cycle, based on England’s highly successful Under 20 teams from 2010 to 2013.

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Look at the list of names coming from the greatest ever World Under 20 final against New Zealand in 2011 – Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, George Ford, Andy Farrell, Jonathan Joseph and Elliot Daly. He also capped, from the class of 2010, Jamie George, Joe Marler, George Kruis and Jonny May plus Billy Vunipola from 2012. Then in 2013 England won the Under 20 tournament, and Lancaster capped Luke Cowan-Dickie, Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson.

Lancaster also had good results considering where he was in the cycle. We all remember the 2015 World Cup exit at the pool stage, but England consistently achieved 4/5 wins and second place in the Six Nations during his tenure. And he sorted out those discipline issues he inherited. He even made England likeable.

Thirteen of the 23 man 2019 World Cup final team were first capped by Bomber. (Eddie can also thank Martin Johnson for Manu Tuilagi, Dan Cole, Courtney Lawes and Ben Youngs.) Overall we can say job done Stuart Lancaster, he played the correct role for where England were in their cycle.

WHAT CAN AUSTRALIA LEARN FROM EDDIE’S TIME IN CHARGE?

England now entered the harvest season of their generational cycle. The four year World Cup mini cycle when the golden generation peaks and the big trophies need to be won.

Most teams would now move on older players who would be unlikely to make the next World Cup. Eddie however has his own ideas and for better or worse likes to do things his own way.

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Jones has said that a four year cycle is too long, players would run out of steam at the end. So instead of giving early experience to the emerging golden generation he kept on or brought back older players like his captain Dylan Hartley, former captain Chris Robshaw, media celebrity James Haskell, halfback Danny Care and fullback Mike Brown. None of them were destined to survive until the World Cup.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Jones and these hardened warriors brought resilience, confidence and a winning mentality to a team low on all of these. A record eighteen wins in a row including a grand slam, then another Six Nations win in 2017, all against teams who were already introducing their new crop of talent. It was men against boys, but with Maro Itoje the only new regular in the team others were denied opportunity and experience. Lions coach Warren Gatland helped though, throughout the 2017 test series starting Hartley’s deputy Jamie George and including Kyle Sinckler in the 23 ahead of Dan Cole.

The lack of a third halfback (such as 2011 Under 20 and later Wasps star Dan Robson) to learn from veterans Care and Ben Youngs was a particular Eddyism. He didn’t believe there is enough for a third halfback to do. Not even in a 53 player Wallabies squad, although he has since brought Tate McDermott into the fold.

SHORT CYCLES FOR A HIGH PRESSURE ENVIRONMENT

Perhaps Jones’ belief in a short cycle was due to the constant high pressure players and coaches were under. Youngs this year said that the main difference between Jones and successor Steve Borthwick is that now players know that they need to work at the training ground but can relax at the hotel. With the highly driven Aussie you never knew when something might be demanded of you, at all times of the day or night.

The stories about Eddie are legion. No fewer than 56 players called into camp but capless under him. Another 66 with fewer than ten appearances. The budget repeatedly blown as he burned through more assistants (17) than a circus knife thrower with the shakes.

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Max Malins in tears after he was dropped because of “bad posture.” Captain Hartley’s test career ended with a terse “you’re f****d mate.” John Mitchell being ordered to work on his day off instead of watching his son play at Lord’s (Mitch put family first and supported his son, before moving to Wasps soon after.) A coach having to do England analysis work at night while working in New Zealand for the Lions by day. Jones supposedly buying another coach steak as an apology for a rant in front of the rest of the staff… except when it was opened there was only sausages with a note “You’re not ready for steak. You’re a sausage. Up your game.”

(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

On the other hand many players testify that Eddie improved them and was a top coach. And perhaps Aussies are better able to cope with his abrasive behaviour.

It has to be asked though, Does Australian rugby have the human and financial resources to cope with a turnover comparable to K Mart on Christmas Eve?

THREE ABRUPT CRASHES

As England’s veterans got older and younger opponents gained experience the front fell off, but in retrospect that 2018 annus horribilis was just what England needed. Older players were sacked by Eddie while youngsters like Sinckler, George, Curry and Underhill were given bigger roles. 2019 was a much more successful year. Which takes us back to that fateful week in Japan.

Before the semi final, Jones boasted that England had targeted the All Blacks clash for two years. Wibble Rugby gives an excellent analysis on how England were specifically set up to counter New Zealand… but that South Africa required a very different approach.

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The confidence of everyone from Jones to the players and the media was sky high after the comprehensive victory over the long term kings and England’s bogey team. Eddie cancelled his plans to replace George Ford and Mako Vunipola with more physical players against the African muscle. Marler and Cole joked their way through the final press conference. The papers were high on hyperbole.

Twenty three raggedly arranged red roses were trampled by a herd of springboks.

Surely though all was not lost. The core of the team was young enough for another four years and there was all that talent to come from those successful Under 20 squads.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

England duly took home the chocolates in the first year of the new World Cup cycle by again keeping their roster intact while everyone else rebuilt. However it was easy to see that France had stolen the march on them by clearing the decks to hasten the development of the next generation. The young France team beat experienced England in the 2020 Six Nations and even after sending their best thirty players home they took them to extra time in the Autumn Nations Cup final.

France’s prioritisation of its golden generation was already paying dividends and we all know what’s happened since. Meanwhile, England delayed its renewal and went backwards.

In his first World Cup cycle Eddie started with two years of victories followed by one year of losses. This time the salad days were restricted to 2020 and Eddie never came back from his final crash.

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Astonishingly, despite all the Under 20 success, it’s questionable whether a single player debuting after 2017 has since established themselves in the team by playing consistently at a top test level. And even young world class stars from the 2019 tournament like Itoje and Curry have gone backwards.

One feature after 2019 was Eddie’s theory that possession rugby is dead, with his seemingly preprogrammed players often kicking when the overlap was on (echoed recently by Len Ikitau in Pretoria.) Eddie’s fly half George Ford infamously claimed that the ball was “a ticking time bomb” but nobody told the “half baked” 2023 Springboks, who played winning ball in hand rugby despite sending the bomb squad ahead to Auckland.

EVALUATING EDDIE’S ENGLISH EXCURSION

So was Eddie’s tenure a success, failure or somewhere in between?

Thinking first of the 2016-19 World Cup cycle, it surely can’t be considered truly successful because a big team like England has a royal opportunity to win the top prize at the peak of their generational cycle. We also have to consider the mess Jones made of preparing for the final. Conversely it’s hard to call a runner’s up medal a failure. So a par score, behind the previous golden generation in 2003/07 but level with the one before that in 1991.

On the other hand, the less said about the current World Cup cycle the better. Not that all of the blame should be laid at the head coach’s door.

Wallabies coach Eddie Jones looks on during the round two Super Rugby Pacific match between Western Force and Queensland Reds at AAMI Park, on March 05, 2023, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

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IT’S NOT ALL EDDIE’S FAULT

The problems with the Under 20s to adults stage of England’s development pathways are well documented. A lot of England’s best young players simply aren’t getting high level games, despite a lack of relegation which should encourage risk taking.

Some aspects of their structure are mind boggling. In a sport with no transfer fees for the adults developed by a club, there ARE transfer fees if you want to sign kids developed by a school in another club’s catchment. Let that sink in for a moment. Imagine how many promising players have been denied opportunities as a result.

Then consider the 50% reduction in subsidies by the Rugby Football Union to the second tier Championship. Pre COVID, so no excuse.

How about the RFU scrapping so many grassroots posts in 2018 while Eddie was overspending massively at the top of the pyramid, for example by buying out John Mitchell’s South African contract? Then renewing Eddie’s bumper contract in 2019.

Or their sacking of every single community coach and rugby development officer in 2020. Let that one sink in too.

Now compare all this to France’s newfound emphasis on local player development described in my previous article. And Ireland’s prioritisation of a centrally planned development system, resulting in unprecedented success which only looks like growing. It’s no coincidence either that those nations have taken the place of England in dominating Under 20s rugby.

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(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

IS EDDIE THE RIGHT CHOICE?

As for Eddie, is he the coach that Australia needs right now? We know that he eschews even the idea of a four year cycle, preferring shorter, high intensity bursts before the team runs out of steam. Hardly the leader to take the Irish philosophy of transformative long term rebuilding from the bottom up. Or even the medium term golden generational view, prioritising the players in and around, say, the successful 2019 Under 20s.

So how can Australia make best use of Jones? With the Wallabies having to peak every two years during his tenure for either a World Cup or Lions series, maybe he is the right person to get maximum success from each short term opportunity. A series of smash and grabs.

Perhaps his ability to target one opponent and beat them will win the Bledisloe and Lions series and result in successful World Cups. Combined with his bullish communication style this could enthuse the populace, leading to more fans and aspiring young players.

But what happens if his big talk begins to look hollow due to failure on the pitch? He hasn’t exactly inherited a group of experienced superstars. And what if, in his short termism, he fails to develop players well enough to compete in the next cycle? We’ve already seen how his England fell flat, largely for that very reason.

OVER TO YOU

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Is hiring Eddie a huge, high stakes gamble? Or is he the best available leader to bring back the glory days? Let us know what you think.

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