A 6 Nations title should always be celebrated, a Grand Slam even more so. England’s first Grand Slam since 2003, and only their second Championship in that time has understandably brought some extra rugby coverage in the National Press. Forget the supposed”paucity” of this season’s championship, 5 games, 5 wins is what rugby is all about. It’s a business all about winning.
The engaging thing for me is not so much the team, as good as they may turn out to be, but the man who has come in to lead them, after a disappointing 4 years under Stuart Lancaster.
Eddie Jones, the coach who nearly stole Sir Clive Woodward’s thunder in 2003, has transformed opinions, feelings and outlook about and in, what is pretty much the same group of players that failed to perform at England 2015.
Not scared of a word or two, whoever he may upset, he’s not so much a breath of fresh air for Northern Hemisphere Rugby – many don’t like his outspoken attitude. He does however bring a very different outlook to a set-up that had become almost too “touchy-feely” in its approach.
Martin Johnson seemed to lead a team that forgot about the privilege of representing their country in this great sport, whilst Stuart Lancaster’s approach was as diverse as you could possibly imagine. It was all about image, it seemed for Lancaster, whilst the business of winning rugby matches seemed to be lost in the clamour for the right culture.
Jones on the other hand, has taken a different path. That honour is at the forefront of all he does. He appears to appreciate the responsibility and all that comes with it, as well as knowing that ultimately, nice guys usually come last.
There’s a huge irony for me, that it appears to have taken an Australian to point the English Rugby team in the right direction. Perhaps, an Australian without the close connection to the last truly successful English coach would not have been able to get the team back on what seems to be approaching an even keel, but it’s such a wonderful meeting of opposites.
Then again, Australians are natural winners and it’s that ethos that needs instilling into rugby in Britain & Ireland. You would hope that there isn’t a huge gap between “us and them” in the Southern Hemisphere. Identifying where possible shortfalls may be, is the beginning of the job.
In Paul Rees’ article in The Observer last Sunday, Jones identified where he thought there was a shortfall. He praised the professionalism of the English clubs but added
“…there is another part which is that highly unstructured, multi-phase, ball moving, continuous rugby. You can’t expect English clubs to condition their players for that, because they don’t need to be good at that. That’s the bit we need to add when we get them. It’s not a criticism of the clubs; it’s about what they’ve got to do and what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to use every minute when we are in camp to get the players to play a different sort of rugby.”
Now, that isn’t rocket science is it? Compare the approach of Wales to that ethos. Up until recently, the successful blueprint in European Rugby was the one used by Wales. Win the collisions, pay lip service to the set-piece, and kick the leather off the ball.
Interestingly enough, following these words from Eddie Jones, Warren Gatland today declared that his team had to lose weight. In a Wales on Line article penned by Andy Howell, Dan Lydiate declared that:
“if you’re lighter, you can get of the deck quicker. When you are playing at a high tempo, you can’t afford to be carrying excess weight.”
A coincidence maybe? A recognition from the Welsh management that there will be a change of approach? Well, the gist of the article was that one or two kilos could be the difference in these close games. Lydiate’s assertion that he is 5lbs lighter than last year, 17st9lb, rather than 18st, tends to show where the Welsh mindset really is.
Eddie Jones’ approach, while putting an emphasis on fitness himself, is to use the physical nature of his players as part of a wider picture. You only have to look at the first half of the game against Wales in the 6 Nations. Sean Edwards’ assertion that “he couldn’t get his head round” how Wales lost the game after outscoring England three tries to one, was possibly one of the silliest things I’ve heard.
The tactical nous shown by his team was actually a joy to behold. Taking the game away from Wales’ big men, utilising the blind-side in attack, recycling quickly, organising his strike runners on the hoof. Everything Wales have seemingly struggled to do in recent times.
Of course, the scoreline didn’t reflect the panning the first half suggested was on the way. 4 points was not a hiding, and as any real rugby fan knows, the game is an 80 minute contest, not one involving microcosms. The challenge awaiting England in the summer in Australia is far greater than what they have met so far.
However, the signs are there for a bright future. World Cup winners? That’s a long way off. There’s one guarantee though. Eddie Jones won’t tolerate mediocrity. Play your best and lose, you may be forgiven. Any slacking off will be unforgiveable though.
As James Haskell, in a somewhat self-promoting interview in the Guardian with Donald Mcrae on Monday put it, Eddie Jones is like a “bomb waiting to go off.” He’s also a “people person,” a man manager who attempts to get into the psyche of the players he coaches. The work he did with Japan proves that beyond a doubt. By looking at the assets he had, and how best to utilise them, he produced one of the greatest results in the history of the game.
Different coaches have different methods to achieve the end result. He may not turn out to be the real deal – or should I say, might not get England to be that. But, step one of his journey is complete. His warning to players, mind games they may have been, shows that there will be no resting on laurels. My pre Six Nations prediction of an England Grand Slam turned out to be correct.
There’s a new sheriff in town now though. The likes of Gatland and Schmidt may not be at the squeaky bum time stage yet, nor those Down Under, but this next year or two may see a shift in power, not just up here in the Northern Hemisphere, but down South too.