Eddie Jones proves he was exactly the right leader
Talk to England players from the last 10 years and they say the team were desperate for a leader who could tell them how to win big games. Tell them, show them, help them. In all international team sports, players are an odd mix of self-reliant and needy. So, the theory goes: what England needed was an Eddie Jones.
A little over 100 days since returning to the land where he coached Japan with such distinction in a World Cup, Jones hunted down a prize that has eluded English rugby since 2003: a Grand Slam, a northern hemisphere sweep, a perfect record in Europe’s de facto version of the Rugby Championship, which supplied all four World Cup semi-finalists (the shame of that has yet to lift, whatever the scene-shifters pretend).
The whole southern hemisphere debate will flare again. But it can wait.
Let them enjoy the advances they made in a generally bad Six Nations Championship. Dylan Hartley, knocked out cold and carted off on a stretcher, was a fine captain. Maro Itoje was the ‘find’ of the tournament. George Kruis progressed mightily. Billy Vunipola was the stand-out star. And England’s backs regained some confidence after the World Cup fiasco.
Most of all, England added Jones, whether as a short-term alchemist or long-term constructer (it is still too soon to know). The superb first-half display against Wales and a resolute deal-closing display here in Paris carried them home. This was England at a higher level. It was their bad luck that the France who hate the English decided to show up, defending fiercely and exploding into action down Virimi Vakatawa’s wing. England led 17-12 at the interval, through a Danny Care breakaway try and a disputed touchdown by Dan Cole, but France fought hard to wreck the coronation
A real test, then, with Jones scoring highly for replacing Ben Youngs with Care, and referee Nigel Owens having a rare off-day. Lucky general? Jones is making most of his own luck, with good decisions. With France breathing fire at last he needed all his Machiavellian instincts for the final push on a bone-chilling night.
The Six Nations title was already on the shelf, but for England to be sure they have left the nearly-men years behind they needed this bigger, grander prize.
For all the detailed run-downs of what Jones has added, the crucial difference is that he convinced the players he knows what it takes to win stressful matches. Not to take silver in the Six Nations four seasons in a row, but to win, the way Sir Clive Woodward’s team knew how to win, and made it a habit. English rugby has been exceptionally good at hiding its awkward truths. Chiefly, one Six Nations Grand Slam since 2003, until now.
That, your honour, is a travesty for a country with such resources. It concealed these realities by talking of “development.” Each near miss (or not so near, when they finished third, fourth, fourth and third in the Six Nations in the four years after the 2003 World Cup win) was clouded by talk of finding a group of players to “start again” and peak two or three years hence.
Again, former players suspect that whole way of thinking became a crutch;
In the Stuart Lancaster years it went about as far as it could. Pride in the shirt became the raison d’etre, a goal in itself. What started as a good idea ended up eclipsing the thing many believe these players wanted above all else: instructions and inspiration on how to win the biggest matches; how to cross the line with a rose between the teeth.
Jones has done a fine job of presenting himself as someone who has that knowledge, without having to hack away at the squad he inherited. From his media blackout before the Wales game to his brutal Aussie honesty on the training ground, he has transmitted the idea that he has the magic code in his head.
Selecting Hartley as his captain was an inspired decision
Game management and substitutions are vital to this process. If the players see the head coach making shrewd decisions in the heat of battle, confidence becomes infectious. Each man thinks: ‘This coach will make us win, and therefore make me successful.’ In most cases this feeling fades. But the good leaders stretch it out, keep their message fresh. Above all, they keep winning.
There were all sorts of forward steps. Take Chris Robshaw: stripped of the captaincy, demoted, in effect from No 7 to No 6, yet playing some of his best rugby in an England shirt. To demote a player and improve him at the same time is a sign of clever management.
Twelve months ago England went wild in a 55-35 victory over France that failed to stop Ireland winning the Six Nations. It was a thrilling but futile gesture. This time a 31-21 victory lifted them to the summit. For 13 years England teams have mostly stumbled about in need of a higher power to tell them what to do. A higher power who knew more, not less, than they did, and was unstinting in his cunning and his clarity.
Jones has looked like that kind of leader: the one they need now. The lurch from Lancaster to Jones has achieved its first objective, to put winning first, ahead of evolution. In fact Jones would say winning creates the pride in the shirt, rather than pride producing wins. In rugby, a combative, punkish edge also helps. This England side have been given a taste of something denied them for 13 years. It has to be more than a one-off.
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Posted on March 23rd, 2016
Posted on March 24th, 2016