Wednesday 25 April 2018

Jones' meek apology for ill-judged comments heaps pressure on him

Comment

England coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
England coach Eddie Jones. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Oliver Brown

Being baited by an Australian rugby coach for the relative size of one's country has become, over the years, a badge of honour. In 2004, Scott Johnson - the bluff Sydneysider then serving as Steve Hansen's assistant with Wales - had to apologise for describing New Zealand as a "poxy little island in the Pacific". His contrition was not exactly high on the sincerity scale. "In fact," Johnson clarified, "it's two islands." Just in case anybody had not grasped the gag, he unzipped his tracksuit top to reveal a black T-shirt emblazoned with 'Kiwi target practice' and a bullseye.

Where rugby is concerned, New Zealanders have a hide about as thick as a sheet of sugar-paper. I speak with some experience: when I wrote once that the haka was in danger of becoming sport's answer to Cirque du Soleil, the column made the lead item on their national TV news bulletin, while a group of Kiwi expats threatened to perform the war dance outside my flat at 4am.

The hue and cry over Eddie Jones' barbs against Wales, a "s**t little place that has got only three million people", and the "scummy Irish" has assumed a similar flavour.

In the present climate of exemplary punishment, it will be a wonder if the RFU do not bow to pressure and submit Jones to some form of re-education programme on all things Welsh and Irish.

For the discordant element of this row lies not in Jones' language - he has always had a tongue that Mark Ella, his old confrere at Randwick, best described as "lethal" - but what has ensued. While the RFU issued an apology on his behalf, Jones went full sackcloth and ashes himself. "I'm very sorry," he said. "I should not have said what I did."

The tone was distinctly un-Jones-like: no excuses, no caveats, not even the word "mate".

Was this the same Jones we had come to know, and begrudgingly admire, for his defiant doubling down? The last time England played Ireland at Twickenham, in 2016, he had dialled up hostilities by suggesting that his players would go after Johnny Sexton after the Ireland fly-half had suffered a litany of head injuries.

The comment was widely seen as somewhere between crass and outright callous. Except Jones, at his next press conference after a 21-10 win, was having none of it. "I don't regret anything," he shrugged.

Such were the liberties afforded a coach, en route to a world record-equalling sequence of 18 Test matches unbeaten. Win, and even the most thoughtless diplomatic lapses can be forgiven by the England's red rose-tinted fans. Lose and the blowback can be brutal. With the lustre having faded from his alchemist credentials, thanks to straight defeats by Scotland and France, he encounters a public among whom the first few seeds of scepticism have been sown. It ill behoves him, then, for him to be caught belittling this year's Six Nations champions as "the scummy Irish".

We should be wary of excessive sanctimony about Jones' conduct. Jones hails from a land where wind-ups of its smaller neighbour across the Tasman are de rigueur. Last summer, Australian politician Barnaby Joyce found himself besieged on all sides when it was discovered that, contrary to constitutional rules, he held New Zealand citizenship on his father's side.

The 'Brisbane Courier-Mail', longing to stick the hobnail boot into a country where sheep outnumber humans by seven to one, splashed with the headline: "Ewe cannot be serious."

Some of Jones' compatriots are not averse to taking the rise out of even their own country. Former prime minister Paul Keating is reported to have said of Darwin, remote capital of Australia's Northern Territory: "The best way to see Darwin is at 35,000 feet on the way to Paris."

On the evidence of Jones ill-advised conference speech, where he stoked fury throughout Wales and Ireland, he shares the same penchant for geography-based humour. His comments, while hardly worthy of an Edinburgh stand-up award, were made far more out of mischief than malice. But the sheer meekness of his subsequent apology offers a telling reminder of how far, and how quickly, his stock has fallen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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