How has it come to this? That the Six Nations is nothing more to Eddie Jones than a development vehicle for the World Cup. That an England attack, which yielded three tries in just four games outside of Italy, can be described as “very good”. That there can be so much gushing over rank mediocrity.
or Jones to hail his team’s progress as if it was they rather than France who won the Grand Slam is pure gaslighting. Yet the Rugby Football Union are fully in thrall to the cult of Eddie, citing “strong positive steps” and “solid progress” after three losses. Pass the Kool-Aid. A third-place finish is a fig leaf which does nothing to spare the indignity of another two-win campaign in the wake of Saturday night’s 25-13 defeat by the French.
Of course the spotlight is on Jones but the Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney needs to step out of the shadows. Twelve months ago, Sweeney promised a “brutally honest” debrief of England’s fifth-place finish. The ensuing report, compiled by a panel of anonymous ‘experts’, delivered not a single word of censure for Jones. Now the RFU have abandoned any pretence at subjecting Jones to any kind of accountability.
Barring a couple of discussions around concussion, Sweeney has not been heard from since as Jones has been allowed to give “golden nuggets” of advice to All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett in Japan and write a book about leadership which disparaged several current England players. Watching Jones in action is like one of those dogs that charges around a park off a leash, while its owner insists it is just being friendly. You have to wonder who is really running the show at Twickenham.
In Sweeney’s time as a chief executive, England have drifted from World Cup finalists and winning a stodgy Six Nations in 2020 to registering four victories in the past two tournaments. It is impossible to imagine that Stuart Lancaster, who never finished below second, would have survived a similar set of results. Today’s updated World Rugby rankings will show England have fallen to fifth when last September RFU chairman Tom Ilube was stating that England should “consistently be ranked one and two in the world.”
But according to Jones, this is all part of the plan. Just wait until the World Cup. Just wait until I get three continuous months with the players and everything will come good. Just wait and shut your noise.
Jones can legitimately point to how they rallied from fifth in the 2018 Six Nations to reach the World Cup final 18 months later. He can point to three Six Nations and his winning percentage, which is the highest of any England head coach. In an early morning press conference yesterday, Jones used the word “faith” three times. But that faith needs to be wilfully blind to the current trajectory of this England team.
Over the past 20 Six Nations games not featuring Italy, England have won eight games – and that includes winning the 2020 title. There has been plenty of reference within the camp to ‘what if’ they had managed the last quarter better against Scotland and Ireland. But that can be reversed to say ‘what if’ Wales had not started so abysmally at Twickenham before running out of time to overturn a 17-point deficit.
“The results are the results but if you look past the scoreboards I think there’s been some growth in this team,” scrum-half Ben Youngs said. So let’s judge the performances. The campaign as a whole was not without its bright points. Ellis Genge came of age up front. Full-back Freddie Steward was imperious under the high ball. Marcus Smith sparkled intermittently while Joe Marchant showed up well when he was not being shunted in and out of the team.
And that is basically it. Individual flourishes were undermined by a total lack of collective understanding with ball in hand. A return of eight tries and the fewest broken tackles of any team, including Italy, only hints at how dysfunctional the attack was on the field.
“One of the things we did really well was attack well up until the 22,” Jones said, which is like saying this car would be really quick if only it had wheels. The problem is this appears far more of a trend than a blip. England’s attack has only looked like a coherent force when Scott Wisemantel was running the show heading into the 2019 World Cup.
Then there’s the breakdown. This was cited in last year’s debrief as a key area for improvement. Against France, they coughed up four turnovers at the breakdown in the first half alone. France were riddled with nerves and made 18 handling errors, but are still in a league above England. If Jones believes there is only a three per cent gap between the teams then he is kidding himself.
However, as was made perfectly clear by the RFU’s astonishing statement, what Jones says goes. Short of burning down Twickenham, there are virtually no circumstances in which his role will be endangered. Jones will take England through to the 2023 World Cup. Maybe the touts outside Twickenham next year can swap tickets for trinkets of faith. It is going to be sorely needed.
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