Eddie Jones is one of life’s more persuasive characters – at his most convincing, he could describe Sam Burgess as a misunderstood genius of the union game and stand an outside chance of being taken seriously – so when the new red-rose coach places England in the “second tier” of European rugby, people listen.
“When I showed the players the country’s Six Nations ranking since 2003, I think they were shocked,” he said this week. “The results put them in the bottom three.”
The Australian had a point. England are indeed below the fold when it comes to winning Six Nations Championships over the last dozen years – the solitary victory eked out by Martin Johnson’s side in 2011 does not amount to much when set against the four titles each secured by Wales and France, together with the three claimed by Ireland – and when it comes to Grand Slams, the comparison is even less palatable.
There have been half a dozen clean sweeps since Johnson the player (as opposed to Johnson the manager) lifted the World Cup on that night of nights in Sydney, none of them achieved by the wealthiest, most heavily populated union country on the planet.
“This record is simply not reflective of the talent and potential in England,” said Jones, warming to his theme. “The results indicate that in the past it’s been considered good enough just to win a cap for England, without winning for England.
“There’s a big difference between playing for your country and winning for your country and making that step involves a three per cent change. It doesn’t sound much, but that three per cent is hard. Why? Because it involves doing all the things you don’t want to do.”
There are good reasons why Jones is pushing this particular message for all he is worth: it is easier to convince players of the need for a fundamental change of mental approach in the near future if you can tear bloody great holes in the immediate past. But he is using a hell of a lot of poetic licence.
On some measures, England’s recent performance at Six Nations level has been rather good – too good, certainly, for them to be bracketed with Scotland and Italy as the sick men of the Championship.
An assessment of the final tables since 2003 reveals that Ireland have been the most consistent performers, with England a close second, ahead of France and Wales. Scotland and Italy, the teams with whom England share “tier two” status according to Jones, are miles behind the rest in terms of their annual delivery in tournament rugby.
On this reading, the much criticised Stuart Lancaster regime was nowhere near as hopeless as some of the Cumbrian’s fiercer critics have tried to make out. During his four years in charge, Lancaster’s team finished runners-up on each occasion. Should this really go down in the annals as a masterpiece of underachievement? If you take the view that second is never anywhere but nowhere, a silver medal is nothing to write home about. If, on the other hand, you believe in gradations of success, a place on the podium is far better than the alternative.
The numbers tell us that England under Lancaster were precisely twice as successful as France under Philippe Saint-André. How many red-rose coaches would have settled for a return like that in the mid-Noughties, when Les Bleus were the cutting-edge team in the northern hemisphere?
What is more, no England side since ’03 has finished bottom. The last time they found themselves in wooden spoon territory was in 1987, when all but four of the squad for this season’s tournament – Mike Brown, Danny Care, James Haskell and Chris Robshaw – were still twinkles in their fathers’ eyes.
For all that, Jones is wholly convincing – that word again – when he insists he is uninterested in any definition of success bar the obvious one. “We have to win,” he said after confirming the Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley as captain a few days ago. “Nothing else matters.”
The new man will have to go some to emulate two of his predecessors as red-rose top dog. Both Mike Davis, who played Test rugby as a lock before being appointed head coach on the strength of his work at Sherborne School, and Jack Rowell, the architect-in-chief of Bath’s decade-long domination of English club rugby, won a Grand Slam at their first attempt – no mean feat, even in the amateur Five Nations era.
Jones has no doubt told himself he can achieve something similar – the man from Burnie in Tasmania did not get where he is today by hiding the blinding light of his ambition under a bushel – but the odds are stacked heavily against him.
For starters, England face three away games in this year’s competition; by way of a main course, he has only a half-baked idea of his strongest side, partly because he considers many of the country’s most prominent players to be much of a muchness in terms of ability and has yet to separate the real Test animals from the rest, and partly because several front-running contenders, from Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade in midfield to Kieran Brookes at the sharp end, are either short of match conditioning or crocked.
Throw in Jones’ strong temptation to blood the best uncapped talent sooner rather than later – perhaps against the Italians in Rome a fortnight tomorrow – and it is clear that a settled side will not emerge until the autumn international programme at the earliest. And if there is one thing history tells us, it is that Six Nations titles, and particularly Grand Slams, are won by countries blessed with continuity of selection.
By and large, modern clean sweeps have been achieved when coaches use 20 or fewer starting players over the course of the tournament or, like Warren Gatland with Wales in 2012, they restrict their tinkering to a couple of positions. When Davis, with Bill Beaumont as captain, guided England to their long-awaited Slam in 1980, he made only one change in the pack and two at centre over the stretch of the series. When Rowell delivered on the same scale 15 years later, there were no changes at all. That red-rose side was the very model of consistency, in all respects.
It is precisely this consistency that Jones must confront when Wales visit Twickenham in the fourth round of matches. Gatland, in charge of the Red Dragons for the last two World Cup cycles, is fond of saying that while England coaches are blessed with untold riches when it comes to playing numbers, that wealth leaves them struggling to see the wood for the trees. “Do they know their best starting XV?” he asked, shortly before the countries met at last year’s global tournament. “Probably not. We do.”
Lancaster was hardly the wildest selector ever to run a Test side, but even he struggled to hold steady when it came to picking a team. Only three times in four Six Nations tournaments did he field an unchanged line-up; over that period he chose seven different back three combinations, five centre partnerships, five half-back pairings, half a dozen front-row units, seven sets of locks and no fewer than eight back-row formations. Throw in those players who featured at other points – on the fully loaded summer tours to South Africa in 2012 and New Zealand in 2012, for instance – and add one or two sudden World Cup manifestations and there is not a jury in Christendom who would take longer than half an hour to convict England on a charge of gross inconsistency.
There has been more to England’s delivery failure on the Six Nations front than a chronic inability to identify two complementary centres and stick with them – as Wales have done with Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies; as Ireland did with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy – or find three loose forwards who are fit for purpose collectively as well as individually. Sometimes, decent red-rose sides with legitimate designs on the title have found themselves confronting opponents who were simply too much of a force of nature on the day. It happens, as the All Blacks themselves will confirm.
Unfortunately for the Twickenhamites, the dead weight of history – political and social history, even more than the sporting variety – impacts heavily on red-rose reality, in the form of their opponents’ sky-high levels of motivation. The long and short of it is that everyone loves beating England. Jones will understand this. He’s Australian, after all.
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