The scars of England’s abject failure at their home World Cup last year will take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, a few green shoots of recovery are appearing; a couple of small steps forward being made. All of a sudden England have won the Triple Crown and are one win away from their first Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003. Not a lot has changed in the personnel running out in the England jersey, so what has made the difference? The new Head Coach Eddie Jones. Sometimes we can over-emphasise the impact that one man can have on a team’s fortunes. That certainly isn’t the case with England’s incumbent Australian.
The experienced Tasmanian, who led an inspired Japan last autumn in the World Cup and was the losing Australia coach when England lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy 13 years ago, came with a massive reputation and the impact he has made is obvious. The way in which he manages his troops, as well as his tactical acumen, makes Jones a fine example for young aspiring coaches to learn from.
Firstly, he has a highly effective knack of keeping his players on their toes – both those in the squad and the potentials looking on in eagerly from the Aviva Premiership. It is a shrewd bit of psychology that keeps everyone inside and outside of the camp focused. No one is allowed to get comfortable and complacent. Incentives are given to those itching to get involved, while those who have made the cut are regularly reminded that there is a great depth of talent waiting in the background, ready to pounce if standards drop. Those on the fringes are teased. For example, Maro Itoje was made a non-playing reserve for the opener against Scotland. A carrot dangled to give him an idea of what could be his. The result? Three gigantean subsequent performances that included a man of the match award against Wales for a youngster cited as a future England captain. Jones also publically built up the confidence of Jonathan Joseph while reminding him of the pressure being put on him by Elliot Daly for the number 13 shirt. So how did Joseph respond? A hat-trick against Italy. The examples could keep coming and his tenure has barely even got going.
An integral element of this intelligent tactic is never allowing things to turn into a routine. Different aspects of his coaching are constantly changed up. Nothing is allowed to plateau. Players are jolted out of their normal habits. The starting XV may not have changed enormously but there have been deliberate alterations in emphasis, methods and rhythm within the camp. For example, one day they were sent for a short session at Hyde Park, away from their normal Bagshot training base. There was the surprise selection of Dylan Hartley, banned from the World Cup squad by Stuart Lancaster, as captain and then the decision to name Mike Brown, Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola as three new vice-captains. Jones said he was going to push his players harder than ever before in training and has been true to his word, with extra running and pre-dawn gym sessions already the norm. A brutal management style demands total commitment from his players and pushes them to their limits – those who can’t cope are jettisoned, those who can thrive. His recent comments say it all about this philosophy, “Routine is good until it becomes mundane. You have to be ready for change. What’s the definition of insanity?”
A common trait in top managers at the highest level is the ability, especially when the pressure is on, to somehow deflect the scrutiny and attention away from the players onto themselves. Sir Alex Ferguson was a master of it and so, it seems, is Jones. Before the win over Ireland he stated that England would target their opponents fly-half and main man Johnny Sexton because of his recent concussion problems. Did he mean what he said? Maybe not. Did he want to turn the focus onto his words and not the chances of his players keeping their Grand Slam hopes alive? Most definitely. It was cool, calculated and deliberate. As was his sudden self-imposed silence to the press for the majority of the build-up to the match against Wales, his casting of Scotland as favourites before his first game as coach and his stating that England were going to ‘smack’ Italy in Rome. Another sound bite from him nicely sums up these clever mind games, “Every time we talk to the media we are trying to find a way to win...It’s just part of the process.”
The man who won a World Cup medal in 2007 as technical advisor for South Africa wanted to create a new atmosphere. The introduction of so much youth into the picture, even if not all of it has had a real chance to shine yet, was part of the move to achieve this. Youngsters shake things up and can thrive when given real trust from a coach. They bring a commitment and enthusiasm that can lift the standards of the whole squad. Those such as the previously mentioned Itoje and Daly have certainly done this. It is clear Jones is a great judge of when to blood young players and give them responsibility; Jack Clifford, Paul Hill and Ollie Devoto are just three others who have already been exposed to international rugby, be it on the pitch or just as part of the squad. The future certainly looks bright for England and fans should be excited that they have a leader willing to throw inexperienced but evidently talented players in at the deep end.
Finally, Jones is on his way to achieving the simplest yet trickiest task of all for a new coach – successfully implementing a fresh style of play. All of a sudden England have some clarity and a way to move on from the World Cup shambles, a game plan based on doing the simple things well and minimising mistakes – the latter remains something they need to improve on. There is an emphasis on set-pieces, looking after the ball, strong defence and strategic kicking. There is power in the pack and a blend of creativity and speed in the backs. It is not flashy but it seems to be getting the job done. Crucially, the style is fitted to the players rather than the other way around. Resources are being shrewdly utilised. For example, Billy Vunipola is allowed to smash himself into the gainline whilst George Ford and Owen Farrell are permitted to send out long passes to make the most of the narrow opposition defence their midfield partnership often causes.
Jones isn’t revolutionary. In the long-term he may not even achieve the success he is predicted to deliver. Yet right now you will struggle to find a more intelligent, experienced and intriguing coach in world sport.