Thursday 14 November 2019

Neil Francis: 'Jones' success is more down to accident than design'

England coach will gladly milk the acclaim, but his team's march to the final was no master plan

England head coach Eddie Jones has had plenty to smile about in the run-up to the World Cup final against South Africa. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
England head coach Eddie Jones has had plenty to smile about in the run-up to the World Cup final against South Africa. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Billy Connolly dates his enduring optimism to his days in the shipyards of Glasgow, where he worked as a welder from the age of 16 to 24. One day, he went to buy a packet of cigarettes for Tam, the chain-smoking old worker who ran the company store.

"He started to cough. It was like a storm building up - a thundering storm from miles away. He ended up with these noises that sounded like a platoon galloping through a swamp in wellingtons full of vomit. Then it came to an end; all calmed down. I said 'Jesus Tam, that's some cough.' He said 'f**k off, did you pass the graveyard on your way in here?' I replied 'Aye.' He said 'well the graveyard is full of people that would f**king love my cough.'"

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Given that the two northern hemisphere teams that were left in the semi-finals were our partners in the Six Nations, I still could not bring myself to support either. The prevailing sentiment being that both coaches turned me off their teams. The verbal jousting continued into the week as Jones's and Gatland's frippery spanned further whenever a microphone was shoved in their direction. Jones is now even more smug because his team have made the final, while Gatland is bitter because his team did not. To people in the graveyard, what do we think?

When Jones wished Gatland luck in the third-place playoff this Friday, I thought 'wow - I would love Ireland to play in a third-place playoff'. It would have meant that you reached the semi-finals. When you have 46 points put on you in the quarters and you are tucked up in a casket six feet under, a third-place playoff seems like the best thing in the world.

There is heightened disappointment and deflation when you know that Wales will be in Japan until the final is over. Wales are our barometer. Anything they can do we can do better. Right? Hopeless in the Heino, pathetic in the PRO14 and yet... that was their third semi-final and tomorrow will be their third time contesting a third-place play-off. They may not be up for it and the prospect of playing a thoroughly disillusioned All Blacks side can't be that appealing, but would they rather be back in Wales?

The stench of missed opportunity and under-achievement only really presents itself to you when your rivals are ribbing you about having to undertake a fixture that losing semi-finalists have no interest in.

Collect

To add a little bit of 'sale e pepe' to the dish, Ireland have beaten England 10 times out of the last 16 competitive internationals. When Ireland went to Twickenham to collect their Grand Slam on St Patrick's Day in 2018, 13 of the 23 that represented England that day played last Saturday in England's superb win over New Zealand.

England were so outclassed that day in Twickenham that the suggestion of them reaching a World Cup final the following year would have been laughed at. In the press room that day, the push had already started to get rid of Jones before it was too late. Joe Schmidt was even apparently approached.

Jones's team went down to South Africa and got well beaten in a three-Test series. The rumours of his exit strengthened. A 12-11 win against South Africa in a November 2018 Test that they should have lost, and a 16-15 loss to New Zealand that they should have won, kept the wolves at bay.

Even then, a grievous loss to Wales after a lame and lacklustre second half, and a madcap 38-38 draw with Scotland did not exactly give anyone a sense that England were emerging. But here they are, one victory away from being crowned world champions, having accounted for some very big hitters along the way.

Has England's progress come about as a result of Eddie's grand plan - minute application to detail and a scientific approach to getting his team right?

Not a bit of it! Jones was just as bemused as the rest of us when his team lurched from championship winners to goofballs to contenders again.

Luck and providence - not that he deserved any of it - came swimming to his aid as he toiled in a sea of mediocrity.

Many things have come right for him as a matter of course. It would have been interesting to see how well Ireland would have done on that St Patrick's weekend if England's back-row had been comprised of Sam Underhill, Tom Curry and Billy Vunipola. That back-row, almost alone, is the reason why England are where they are.

England's better players have also out-performed. Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell and Manu Tuilagi have been immense, but England's march has been backboned by players who you would never have suspected would come to such prominence at exactly the right time.

When England took the field at Twickenham in that Patrick's Day clash, Itoje and George Kruis were the starting second rows with Joe Launchbury on the bench. Courtney Lawes was nowhere in sight.

Jones had been experimenting with Charlie Ewels, Dave Attwood and even Nick Isiekwe. Lawes was pretty much gone. In that X-rated 57-15 match at Twickenham back in August, Lawes managed to get back into the match-day squad and performed well when he got onto the pitch. When he got to the World Cup, from nowhere, he started to perform at a very high level and only because Itoje was so good last Saturday, you might have missed Lawes' performance.

I am not a fan, but he was very good while subduing Brodie Retallick. That was something Ireland's much-vaunted locks were singularly unable to do. How do you legislate for Lawes' rise again from nowhere?

Jones, too, has been lucky to get Joe Marler back from retirement and keep him on a tight leash. The same goes for Mako Vunipola, who tore his hamstring off the bone last May and has not been at his best but is still very good.

I was reading a piece in the UK media which stated that Kyle Sinckler was the best tighthead in the world and I thought 'that's not true' - Tadhg Furlong is the best. And then I thought, actually, they are right.

Sinckler was sensational against New Zealand. I don't know another prop who can pass and offload like him under pressure and in contact. Furlong is at home while Sinckler is preparing to play in the World Cup final. Furthermore, he was a key component in getting his side there.

Penalties

Despite Sinckler's brilliance in recent seasons, cards, penalties and suspensions never seem to be far away. Similar sentiments go for his Harlequins team-mate, Marler.

However, the England management seem to have chilled them out and kept their suspect temperaments in check. Is that Jones or just the passing of time? Do we grudgingly have to give credit here?

Jones, whether it was his direction or just a little bit of interplanetary alignment, has got his less obvious players to perform really well. To get your stock of front-five forwards as fit and feisty as they are and playing to a definitive game-plan, well they are primed to win. For all the good English rugby folk out there, I hope they do it.

I will, however, be metaphorically turning in my grave when Jones starts his victory speech!

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