The appointment of Eddie Jones as England coach, the RFU’s first-ever overseas appointment at that level, has raised a number of questions. That is putting it politely – over here it is more like the experience you get when pulling up a stone and watching the frenzied activity of the insects suddenly exposed beneath it!
Here are some of the key issues –
1. Does Eddie Jones have the right background?
The elite rugby union ‘super-coaches’ on the planet can be counted (almost) on the fingers of one hand: Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Wayne Smith, Michael Cheika, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt. What do these coaches have in common?
They all have extensive experience in both hemispheres and have been successful all the way up to the very top level of the game.
Henry and Hansen coached Wales between 1999-2004 and set the foundations for success thereafter (4 Six Nations championships 2005-2015 and a World Cup semi-final in 2011). Gatland won three Premiership titles and one European Cup with Wasps before becoming Wales coach in 2007. Cheika and Schmidt won three European Cups between them from 2009 onwards with Leinster. Smith enjoyed a productive stint at Saints in 2001-2004.
The experience in both hemispheres is a particularly priceless asset and allows Southern Hemisphere expertise to be applied in all circumstances. It is essential as the icing on the cake of any truly top-level coaching background.
All six of those ‘super-coaches’ moved quickly to distance themselves from the England role when it became vacant shortly after the World Cup. Eddie Jones’ experience in the Northern Hemisphere, as Director of Rugby at Saracens between late 2007 (starting as a consultant) and early 2009 was not a happy one and ended with his resignation after less than one full season in charge. He described it as “the worst (experience) I’ve had in rugby”.
So Eddie does not have the same background as the super-coaches as yet, and a question-mark hovers over whether he can adapt to Northern Hemisphere conditions and rugby culture quickly enough. If he spends too much time adapting and not enough time succeeding then it will have been a wasted appointment, with many of England’s winning under-20 age group players coming through in time for the 2019 World Cup.
The answer (reluctantly) to 1 has to be “NO”.
2. Are Eddie Jones’ coaching successes still relevant?
Eddie Jones’ most successful period as an international coach was probably between 2001-2003 as coach of the Brumbies and then succeeding Rod Macqueen as head coach of the Wallabies, more than 12 years ago. During this period Jones won a Super rugby title with the Brumbies and a Tri-Nations with Australia, and drove Australia to the World Cup final in 2003.
His other major success was as a consultant to Jake White and South Africa at the 2007 World Cup – he is credited with re-shaping and refining Springbok back play and may well have been the crucial point-of-difference between winning and losing the Cup for that South African team.
His recent success with Japan is more difficult to judge. Japan were triumphant at the World Cup, winning 3 of their 4 group matches including that historic win over the Springboks, but losing 3 out of 4 games in the Pacific Nations tournament which preceded it. But he succeeded on the bigger of the two stages, so the answer to 2 has to be a whole-hearted “YES”.
3. Can Eddie Jones lead the English game forward?
Eddie Jones’ record suggests high competency purely on the coaching front. But the role of the head coach in England is different, and more complex than any other.
It is really three roles in one – responsible for concrete success on the field, but also largely bearing the burden of media management and the public image of the RFU, and also a key power-broker and negotiator with professional clubs who are independently-owned.
Eddie’s predecessor Up until the World Cup, Stuart Lancaster, scored highly in his two off-field roles while establishing a very respectable record on it. Lancaster is by nature someone who will work and co-ordinate with others to achieve mutual success and he understood from prior experience within the RFU the kind of characters he would be dealing with. Eddie Jones’ style is far more abrasive and confrontational. Prior to his appointment, he said:
“How can you manage your players when they are controlled by other organisations? In my opinion, that’s the single greatest task ahead of whoever is going to be appointed as the next England coach…Wales, Ireland and Scotland – unlike England, Italy and France – all have centralised contracting systems, the union controls the players. As a consequence, they produced competitive teams and vibrant performances at the recent World Cup.”
Although Eddie Jones was correct in his assessment, it was completely mistimed in the context of a privately-owned club game which is currently in boom rather than bust, and thriving on its financial capacity to buy up top international players. The club scene in England is burgeoning, and the issue of central contracts is more of a sideshow than ever it was in the past.
Dual contracts in Wales? By all means, the WRU is the biggest private investor in a region where the private benefactors are all but extinct. In England, never… As Richard Cockerill, the Leicester Director of Rugby replied the very next day, “He can talk about central contracts all he wants, but it ain’t going to happen in our lifetimes.”
This was a poor start by Eddie wearing his ‘club negotiator’ hat. I suspect that in the long-term, whatever success Eddie Jones achieves on the field will be compromised by the difficulty in maintaining positive relationships with the clubs and their owners. While he may turn out be a good head coach, it is hard to see him as a figure around whom the English professional game as a whole can rally, so “NO” is the answer to this question.
One out of three positives may not be enough to sustain Eddie Jones as he takes his first sips from the chalice of English professional rugby!
Over the coming week I will examine the style of play Eddie Jones is likely to bring to the England side, and some of the key areas in the first round match against Scotland.