ENGLAND have become an enigma under Eddie Jones, and the signs are that the outcome at Murrayfield will not bring about an immediate change.
Enigma is the only word that describes a team that veers
from one extreme to the other in the course of a year.
Consider the mood swings. Take the mind-boggling meltdown
which led to the draw with Scotland almost a year ago at Twickenham as a
starting point; move on to Yokohama and one of the most comprehensive
dismantlings of New Zealand ever seen; wind forward a week later to the no-show
against South Africa in the World Cup final at the same venue; and now press
the play button on the pasting in Paris last weekend by a team of French Test
My sense is that part of the reason why this England side is so hamstrung by inconsistency is that it lives in the shadow of its coach – and that while Eddie Jones may not be the biggest physical specimen, he is a forceful character who casts a long shadow.
Jones is overprotective, in the sense that while he says he
encourages the England players to think on their feet and show leadership, he
rules the roost and annexes responsibility for almost everything.
The most glaring example is when he gets into stuck-record
mode in terms of taking responsibility when England play poorly.
Jones instantly holds up his hands and says mea culpa,
usually followed by the catch-all that he did not prepare the team as well as
he should have. This happened again when the head coach said he was at fault
for the training camp in Portugal which left England underprepared for the French
The problem is that usually there is not much of an
appendix, with very few details forthcoming about how and why the shortfall
While we all understand that the buck stops with the head
coach, and that slagging-off players publicly is not going to reinforce team
harmony or trust, there are times when this view that professional players must
be protected from criticism at all costs becomes counter-productive.
At Press conferences it is Jones who holds court – Fast
Eddie ready with the quips, the jibes, the thrust, the counter-thrust. This
means that very often his captains, whether Owen Farrell, or Dylan Hartley
before him, might just as well be cardboard cutouts.
A prime example is that we heard precious little from
Farrell about what, in his view, went wrong in Paris, or, for that matter, on
why England were on the receiving end of such a hammering by the Springboks
that their dreams of winning the Webb Ellis trophy disappeared without trace.
What we could see in both instances was that leadership on the field was lacking, and the body language throughout the team was light-years from the bristling collective competitiveness Jones had forecast.
A look back at the World Cup final tape shows that as soon as Kyle Sinckler is injured key England players have the rabbit-in-the-headlights look of those who have seen Plan A smoked, and have no idea of how to implement Plan B as the Springbok panzers rumble towards them.
There was no sign of Farrell and his backline generals, George Ford and Ben Youngs, or any of the senior forwards, taking the initiative. Instead, they were waiting for instructions from the Jones command module – and all we can deduce is that either Jones had no Plan B, or that captain Farrell and his leadership group could not put it into practice in the 78 minutes after Sinckler was helped off.
There were similarities in Paris. England started badly, and
looked as if they were spooked by Jones’ pre-match boast that they would bring
a “brutality” that would leave the callow French battered.
The England forwards were tentative, to put it kindly, with
most of them – with the exception of Courtney Lawes – lacking the drive and
technique to win the gain-line contact. Instead, it took Ellis Genge’s arrival in the second half for
us to see anything close to the controlled aggression Jones had predicted.
The only thing about England that was brutal was the
contrast between Genge and the rest of the pack.
This brings us to selection, a crucial area where Jones has
proved to be the enigma. In his recent book he admitted he should probably have
picked Joe Marler and Henry Slade in his World Cup final starting line-up ahead
of Mako Vunipola and Ford.
That apart, acknowledgements by Jones of mistakes in
selection are rare. Yet, if, as he has claimed, his radar as a Test selector is
almost flawless, how does he explain the anomalies as he goes into his fifth
year as England coach?
The most recent of these is moving Elliot Daly back to the wing, after an experiment lasting almost two years at full-back. This has coincided with the rapid promotion of George Furbank, who won his first cap at 15 against France despite being in his first full season in the Northampton first team, and the discarding of Ruaridh McConnochie, who was included in the 2019 World Cup squad after being touted by Jones as the next bright young thing at full-back.
Then there is Jones’ refusal to bring a promising No.8 like
Alex Dombrandt – who has more Premiership mileage under his wheels than Furbank
– into his training squad as a powerhouse alternative to Billy Vunipola. This
gives legs to the rumour that the more others champion a selection the more the
coach sets his face against it, because, rather than considering it purely on
its merits, he sees it as bowing to the baying mob.
And what about the stasis in selection at scrum-half, with Jones giving Youngs the chance to monopolise the position during most of his tenure, while offering virtually no encouragement to rivals like Ben Spencer and Dan Robson. The vacuum in the position now that he has demoted Youngs to the bench is entirely of the coach’s making.
Enigmatic England are a mirror image of their coach. So far, Jones has not yet been as successful as the World War 2 boffins at Bletchley Park in managing to crack his own enigma code, and, until he does, sustained success will remain elusive.