Thursday 13 December 2018

England fear Jones is nearing his expiry date

Eddie Jones, Head coach of England. Photo: Getty Images
Eddie Jones, Head coach of England. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

From saviour to busted flush is a road countless coaches have taken, and Eddie Jones has a monumental task to stay off that path. In Six Nations terms, England are further back than when he assumed command late in 2015.

The term 'shelf-life' will be heard a lot around English rugby in the next few days. 'Shelf-life' is a form of last rites. It denotes the tendency of some managers to have a good effect for a while - then a very bad one. However unfair it might be to characterise Jones as a leader with a best-before date, his credibility is damaged. We might as well tell it straight.

England were a shambles in this Six Nations: robotic, indisciplined, confused, and beaten three times, by Scotland, France and finally Ireland, who were vastly superior to the teams Eddie Jones sent out this winter.

The hard bit is deciding how much of it is down to the players, and how much to Jones, who knows strengths are quickly rewritten as weaknesses. A driven, restless, organised nature can be recast as 'intensity' of the sort that wears teams down. His management style is high-risk but often high-reward. As for the players, Jones was surely right to say they need to learn how to "take responsibility." He even said he needed "a greater depth to our squad of players who can play Test rugby" - a complete volte face from the phase, in 2016-17, when pundits spoke of the almost embarrassing vastness of England's resources.

For so long England's mantra was to be the 'No 1 team in the world'. Instead they are the No 5 team in Europe. As a dismal three-week period ended, they were the No 2 side in their own stadium. Ireland, not England, are the model for international rugby in the northern hemisphere.

There is still time for this to turnaround before the 2019 World Cup but for now the facts are inescapable. In Edinburgh and Paris, this England team shattered into pieces. All that was left was for Ireland to administer the dustbin and brush, which they did by racing to a 21-5 first-half lead, displaying greater purpose, shape and composure, before cruising home 24-15. The poverty of England's play this winter has been alarming. They have lacked discipline, creativity and tactical nous.

Twenty-two days ago in Edinburgh they began their descent, as Scotland ravaged them at the breakdown and counter-attacked with verve. The more obvious those lessons at Murrayfield, the less tactically agile England became. Adaptation was beyond them. Jones has emphasised England's problems at the breakdown throughout his three weeks from hell. England's fans, though, were entitled to ask: how about solving them, adapting to the refereeing and showing some game awareness?

Jones stuck with the Murrayfield plan for the trip to Paris, and the outcome was similarly dispiriting. England looked like a team built in an engineering shed. After an emotional, turbulent game, Jones's men headed back to Twickenham needing to halt an Irish Grand Slam, with the added off-field complication that the coach had been filmed joking about the "scummy Irish" and disparaging the whole of Wales.

When results are bad, these diplomatic gusts can assume hurricane force. An apology was issued, quickly and cleanly. Yet Jones had a much bigger problem. Changing the team for the Ireland game might not repair the damage from Edinburgh and Paris, if that damage was collapsed confidence and battered self-belief.

And that structural havoc was everywhere apparent as Maro Itoje tried to punch holes only to be stopped on the spot, as he has been all tournament, and Anthony Watson spilled a Jonny Sexton up-and-under for Garry Ringrose to touch down. Too much has been made of England extending the try-scoring zone with anti-snow blue lines - which allowed Jacob Stockdale to touch down Ireland's third (it was the same for both teams). But symbolically it expressed England's haplessness, as did a physio with a medical bag walking across Owen Farrell's kicking line while he was sizing up a conversion.

In football, Jones would be clinging to his job after a run this bad, regardless of the Six Nations titles in 2016 (with a Grand Slam) and 2017, and a 3-0 series win in Australia. England have not just been beaten. They have been woeful. The regression has been hard to comprehend.

Jones was hired after Stuart Lancaster to instil a ruthless winning mindset. For two years, until they ran into Ireland in Dublin last March, England looked secure on that road to reinvention. This weekend, however, next year's World Cup is a rather frightening image. From his 'World No 1' objective, Jones is reduced to calling three consecutive defeats "natural" for developing teams. There is too much invested in him for the RFU, who awarded him a new contract until 2021, to panic. But Jones will have a job to rebuild his authority and his aura.


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