Eddie Jones has escaped the sack as England’s head coach but is set to be placed under greater scrutiny by a team of hand-picked, expert consultants, with the Rugby Football Union stopping short of backing him through to the 2023 World Cup.
The RFU said on Tuesday that, following a review into England’s disastrous Six Nations campaign – their worst since 1976 – Jones retains the union’s “full support” after the chief executive, Bill Sweeney, had previously refused to rule out activating a break clause in the Australian’s contract.
Jones – the highest paid coach in the world – is contracted through to the 2023 World Cup in France but in announcing a number of recommendations, the RFU intends to keep Jones and England’s performances under regular review via a group of “external rugby experts”. They will be called upon to review and support the coaching strategy after every England campaign, though have not been named by the RFU, which has also kept secret the identity of the review panel, who were assisted by coaches – past and present – and a series of presentations from Jones.
The review’s findings do not include any criticism of Jones and focus instead on the need for improved support structures amid “systemic challenges” – seemingly a reference to the often tense relationship between club and country – and provide a number of what amount to excuses for England’s fifth place-finish in the Six Nations.
Those include the lack of game time for the Saracens contingent, the fact that the forwards coach Matt Proudfoot contracted Covid-19 on the eve of the tournament – forcing Jones into isolation – as well as the strict biosecure bubble, which had a detrimental impact on “squad cohesion”. Key injuries – Jones was without Manu Tuilagi, Joe Launchbury and Sam Underhill throughout the tournament – were also mentioned.
The agreement between the RFU and the Premiership clubs which meant Jones had a fixed 28-man player pool to select from was highlighted, as were the absences of two of his backroom staff – Jason Ryles and Neil Craig – who were stuck in Australia. In addition, England’s indiscipline at the breakdown was identified as a problem on the pitch.
The RFU revealed that overall feedback from the players was positive – in keeping with public comments from those such as Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola – but insisted that the fifth-place Six Nations finish was well below expectations. Jones pointedly made reference to returning to a “winning performance” in next year’s tournament, with the RFU refusing to comment over what action it may take if England finish fifth again. There is also scant mention of the future of Jones’s assistants, with the Wasps attack coach Martin Gleeson heavily linked with a switch.
“We were all disappointed to finish fifth in the Six Nations,” said Sweeney. “Our track record and results under Eddie meant that we, the players and our fans had much higher expectations. Sport is all about fine margins which is why every campaign debrief is invaluable in helping us to learn and improve. Eddie approached this review with a great deal of self-awareness and humility, allowing us to look at every aspect of the tournament to identify every small change we can make in order to improve.”
Other recommendations to be implemented for England’s summer fixtures – the RFU is looking to host the USA and Canada but that remains in doubt – include greater support for coaches and players with an emphasis on sports psychology, more refereeing input and closer alignment with the Premiership. The last point is significant because Jones has repeatedly told of how he gives short shrift to players’ domestic form and has fallen out with clubs in the past, most notably when describing the Bath owner Bruce Craig as “the Donald Trump of rugby”. An annual summer conference featuring the elite England set-up and the Premiership clubs is set to be introduced, however.
“During the Six Nations we were not up to our usual high standards and we recognise that,” said Jones. “The debrief was a valuable process, we all learned a lot from the experience and most importantly we have identified actions to enable the team to move forward positively towards 2023. I’m looking forward to the summer which will provide a great opportunity to see more of our emerging talent and I’m confident our next team will come back stronger this autumn, building up to a winning performance in the next Six Nations.”