So Eddie Jones is still the right man to steer England forward. Or is he? The further down the carefully constructed tower of corporate Jenga-speak you descend, the less glowing the Rugby Football Union’s vote of confidence starts to look. Where, for example, is the definitive line saying: “We’re sticking with Eddie until 2023 regardless”? Let alone any gung-ho predictions about imminent World Cup glory.
Instead, to employ a technical term, Twickenham has chosen a “suck it and see” response to England’s fifth place in the 2021 Six Nations. The RFU will not even reveal who sat on the panel that deliberated upon Jones’s worth, which would merit AC-12’s scrutiny if it were not such a classic blame-avoidance tactic. If England do hoist the World Cup in France in 2023, the faceless panel members are unlikely to remain mystery voices for long.
And if not? Well, of course, it’ll now be Eddie’s fault. As Jones knows from past experience, coaching at the highest level is a results business in the end. It is also about keeping up appearances. If England stumble listlessly into this autumn and finish up in the bottom half of next year’s Six Nations, the RFU’s “full backing” could melt away faster than a summer ice cream on Coogee beach.
In that respect, if not in every area, it is possible to feel some sympathy for Jones. There must already be a part of him cringing at the litany of excuses within the review, some apparently plucked from a folder marked “the dog ate my homework”. A failure of the rest of the coaching staff to cope with the “significant” setback when the new skills coach Jason Ryles and Jones’s managerial guru Neil Craig were unable to travel from Australia? Mate, have you not heard of Zoom? Or that several players – many of them from Saracens – were short of match practice at the start of the tournament? No shite, Sherlock.
Other nations, too, will snigger at the suggestion that strict Covid-19 protocols made life appreciably harder for England than other teams. Or that English players were fatigued because other nations did not have back-to-back domestic seasons? Let’s just say that didn’t greatly impede Louis Rees-Zammit, Callum Sheedy, Tomas Francis or any other members of title-winning Wales’s Premiership contingent.
Some of the tortured fence-sitting language is similarly wince-inducing. England’s campaign, for instance, is described as “sub-optimal” in paragraph one. Less harsh than “rubbish”, maybe, but it gives the impression that the RFU is trying to protect the feelings of all concerned. It has long been a recurring problem in English rugby: in the haste to appease players and sponsors with air-brushed videos and social media treacle, there are too few rugby-savvy individuals inside Twickenham prepared to say it like it is.
Which raises the question that, in fairness, the RFU does finally seem to be asking: is it entirely one man’s fault that England have not won another World Cup since 2003? Or is it something much deeper? For years it has been blatantly obvious that the interests of the national team and the Premiership are not remotely aligned. A proposed annual summer conference – even that is still not entirely set in stone, mind you – involving all the major club and country stakeholders is a good idea that should help, always assuming the talking is not still going on when the new season kicks off.
The recommended extra coaching, technical, analytical and psychological support is also less intriguing than the passing mention of more mystery men: an unknown posse of “external rugby experts” who will henceforth be invited to mark Jones’s homework. No one disputes that Jones, when not distracted by petty score-settling, is a good, experienced coach. Nor that he has talented players at his disposal. The issue, as ever, is how best to harness those two things and, in the process, reinvigorate Jones’s boom-and-bust career coaching graph. Only if they deliver the right backroom blend – fewer “yes men”, more public candour – will the RFU’s measured punt pay off.