Optimistic Eddie Jones backs England `to take it to Australia in Tests
Far from relaxing after winning the grand slam, the coach is in search of constant improvement as he prepares for his side’s three-Test summer tour.
Eddie Jones has said a lot since taking over as England’s head coach without revealing a lot about himself and the way he works, but a few days after masterminding England’s first grand slam for 13 years, he spoke about why he made Dylan Hartley captain.
It was a contentious choice, not least because of the player’s poor disciplinary record, which cost him his place in the World Cup squad and it was made over the breakfast table at the squad’s base in Bagshot, the first time they had met.
Jones’s decision proved doubly inspirational: Hartley led the team adroitly and got on the right side of referees to the extent that they were prepared to talk to him about decisions, while the player he replaced as captain, Chris Robshaw, far from letting disappointment at losing the leadership gnaw at him, was one of England’s standout players in the championship.
"When I first met Dylan we had breakfast at Pennyhill Park," Jones says. "He came in, we got the food and sat down. Then he got up and started talking to the staff in the kitchen. I could see immediately that he had a rapport with them. You pick up leadership skills in people when you see them with others, noticing how they react with them.
One of the ladies then came out and talked to him at the table and because he has the ability to strike up a rapport with people he can then lead them to places. "It was a no-brainer. I spoke to people and the general consensus was that he would be a positive choice.
I remember watching England playing in the World Cup when Steve Borthwick and I were coaching Japan. What struck me was that they were missing Dylan a lot: he may not be the greatest player in the world but he plays with his heart on his sleeve and people follow him. England lacked that in the World Cup."
The conversation then turns to Maro Itoje, the 21-year-old second-row who started against Ireland, Wales and France and played like a seasoned veteran rather than someone just stepping out in Test rugby. He has been tipped as a future England captain and potential successor to Hartley but how he interacts socially will count for more than the books he reads. "How well someone speaks, what school he went to and whether he can write poetry have got nothing to do with leadership," says Jones. "It is all about the ability to influence people.
Maro is a player with potential and we’ve got to be careful with him. He’s got good lineout jumping ability but he made some crucial mistakes against France. He has still got a lot of work to do to become a consistent Test player: there have been a number of locks who have been lauded at the start of their careers but not become part of a consistent, winning England side.
I have no doubt Maro can do it but he has to continue working on his game and not get carried away."
Jones is not getting carried away by England’s grand slam euphoria, well aware and not just because he is Australian, that all the teams in the Six Nations failed to make the last four of the World Cup. "It is in the bottom half of tier one, isn’t it? That is where the countries are," he says. "The rankings don’t lie. One of the things that have struck me about the Six Nations is that the last three weeks were markedly better than the first two when everyone was disappointed with the level of rugby. "The quality was pretty good by the end but at the start players had to make the adjustment from club rugby and did not have much time to do it. Every team improved as the tournament went on. I always felt we could win the championship but I was not thinking of a grand slam until the last game. I thought we would beat France: I hoped they wouldn’t turn up but it was a tough old game.
Jones’s thoughts turn now to his native Australia and the three Tests England play there in June. He will spend the next two months watching players who could break into the team, starting at Saracens on Saturday with the versatile Exeter centre Henry Slade, who missed the Six Nations through injury.
"We have got to keep improving the team," he says. "If we find better players, we will make changes. Take the back row: Chris Robshaw and James Haskell did a good job in the Six Nations, absolutely outstanding, and with Maro in the second row, I do not think pace will be an enormous issue.
"I want to see Jack Clifford go back to Harlequins and be a George Smith, showing he is ready for Test rugby. I see him as a 7 now, even though it is not his natural position, before moving to No8. Ultimately we will need a faster back row but we are being well served by the one we have.
"I am really interested in this Slade boy. He is another great option and he is a big lad, although I am not sure what his best position is. The way we want to play does not require numbers on backs: we want to be able to interchange. "We are not a structured team and do not have a lot of sequence in our play. We have got a formation we play to but then we encourage players to make decisions, something that resulted in two brilliant tries in Paris.
"Our ethos in attack is not to let opponents recover in defence and the players are getting better at it. We did not have a gainline buster at the start of the Six Nations and had to find a different way to play: it was interesting. Owen Farrell was superb at 12: whether we keep him there or have him competing with George Ford at 10 we will wait and see.
"I think Australians will be respectful about England winning the grand slam, or as respectful as they can be. It sets it up for a fantastic series and it will be good to go there with what they will see as a resurgent team. They had France two years ago and the three Tests were dead. They are going to see an England side full of energy and life that wants to play positive rugby. We are going to take it to the Aussies."
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