Wednesday, October 27News That Matters

England head coach Jones given a vote of confidence after a RFU review… so what happens next?

When the RFU told the world that Eddie Jones ‘maintains the full support’ of their board it concluded one of their least shocking post-tournament reviews.

After a Six Nations in which England finished fifth calls for the Australian head coach to go were way wide of the mark.

As Sportsmail consistently reported throughout, it was never going to happen.

But while the panel arranged to review the tournament – made up of ‘players, coaches (past and present) and support staff’ – is a curiously guarded secret kept under lock and key by the union, who will not reveal any names having sworn to those involved they would be kept anonymous, they did come up with some recommendations.

Set out by the RFU they read as a compromise, although the see-saw is largely tipped in Jones’ favour who since he started in 2016 has seeming omnipotence at Twickenham.

Here Sportsmail analyses those, what they might mean, and what comes next for England.

RFU’S REASONS FOR 5TH PLACE FINISH

First, the five reasons for Six Nations failure – explained as follows by the RFU, and scrutinised in turn. 

‘Coaching – the absence of Jason Ryles and Neil Craig were a significant loss in coaching expertise and team support, this had a significant impact on the wider coaching team. The initial unavailability of Matt Proudfoot and isolation of Eddie Jones also had an effect on the effectiveness of the coaching team.’

This one is probably the fairest. Skills coach Ryles was meant to replace Steve Borthwick, now at Leicester Tigers, but did not travel from his native Australia during Covid as he wanted to be with his family. Understandable.

Head of High Performance, another Aussie, Craig is the quiet man in Jones’ back-room team who is often seen at games, training and press conferences, but almost never heard. He is a key confidant and ‘critical friend’ to Jones having coached in Aussie Rules, and rugby league, and one of few men to have Eddie’s ear.

Those absentees left England light. They recruited the inexperienced Jersey coach Ed Robinson to fill some holes, but clearly it did not work as well as they had hoped.

Naturally, forwards coach Proudfoot testing positive for Covid was a major setback. However he, and Jones as a close contact, only really missed a few days of training leading up to the Scotland defeat at the start of the tournament. After that they were locked in and hands on throughout. 

‘Player preparation and availability – several players did not have enough game time going into the Six Nations. Conversely a wider group were fatigued as a result of being the only country to have back-to-back seasons; resulting in players having no mental break from one season to the next. In addition, a handful of notable players were unavailable.’

This is where holes appear. The ‘several players’ are clearly a reference to the Saracens contingent of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, Jamie George, Elliot Daly, Mako and Billy Vunipola.

England finished fifth in the Six Nations, losing three out of their five matches this year

Interestingly – and they were unlikely to say any different – publicly that lot and Jones himself were supremely confident that playing no rugby since the autumn as Sarries had been relegated to a Championship that had not started, was not going to be a problem.

It clearly was, and they have now admitted as much despite railing against suggestions to that end throughout the Six Nations.

The second point is intriguing too. The RFU have said that some were also overcooked, due to back-to-back seasons.

Four points can be raised here; 1) where was the sweet-spot between the undercooked Saracens and the overcooked others?

2) Could the RFU not have helped arrange games in January between Saracens and, say, Georgia, Ealing, Doncaster, or an England U20 side who had nothing to do, to make sure Farrell et al were match-fit?

3) Jones often says that his high-intensity training is harder than matches anyway, so playing games is not always necessary.

4) if back-to-back seasons were going to be major problem why did the RFU not push back strongly when the Premiership decided to complete its delayed season post-lockdown, rather than cancelling and moving onto the next like in other countries, thus creating this squeeze. And why did they not make sure that in their discussions with the Premiership clubs and Rugby Players’ Association players were given more than just two cursory weeks off between seasons? The RFU cannot on one hand bemoan a lack of rest having been key to the agreement of a move to an 11-month season a few years back.

When it comes to unavailability there were only really three major absentees – Sam Underhill and Manu Tuilagi (injured) and Joe Marler who withdrew as he did not want to spend two months bubbled up. England have the largest player pool in the world so should have ample replacements. 

‘Breakdown indiscipline – improvements required including lower body strength and appropriate skill modifications.’

No doubt this bullet point was from one of Jones’ ‘detailed presentations’ given to the review panel. As with lots of his answers to problems it seems the solution is summarised as: ‘we’ve gotta work harder mate.’

Jones, who guided England to the 2019 World Cup final, will be eager to prove his critics wrong

Jones, who guided England to the 2019 World Cup final, will be eager to prove his critics wrong

Jones, who guided England to the 2019 World Cup final, will be eager to prove his critics wrong

Anecdotally it was not so much that England’s forwards lack big calves and thighs in these rucks, it was more that they would either annoy the referee and then were unable to adapt when being whistled off the park, would get caught pushing the boundaries of the laws, and then repeat the same mistake and be baffled they were caught again, or they would concede penalties when under stress from a rampant opposition.

Learning within games that are going against them seems to be a persistent failing of the England team. But maybe all that’s the ‘skill modifications’ they mean. 

‘Covid – the necessary stringent protocols, in some cases greater than other Unions, had a significant impact on coaching and support staff as well as the playing squad cohesion.’

Again intriguing, as one reason why Wales and Scotland’s bubble arrangements were looser was because the Premiership sides demanded English-based players performed a regular hokey-cokey between club and country, returning in fallow weeks.

England’s measures were strict – although pre-tournament they hailed their setup with golf-simulators and fire pits – and it must have been hell in the hotel for nine weeks, but others managed to cope fine with varied restrictions.

Saracens contingent including Owen Farrell had not played competitively for months

Saracens contingent including Owen Farrell had not played competitively for months

Saracens contingent including Owen Farrell had not played competitively for months

The Welsh, for example, were allowed to go home on Wednesdays and returned no Covid positives at all.

But the loosest of the lot, the French, almost derailed the entire competition with their laissez-faire attitude to the pandemic’s strictures.

Of course a lack of time spent together cannot have helped bond the team together, but for most teams it was the same situation. 

‘Squad transition – the agreed protocols, which the RFU and Eddie were fully supportive of due to Covid challenges, meant fixed squads prevented players coming in and out during the campaign as they would normally.’

OK, below is a line from Jones himself when he picked that 28-man squad having agreed on that number with the Premiership clubs.

‘We’re very grateful to the Premiership Rugby, the clubs and RPA for allowing us to have 28 players throughout the tournament, we’re very happy with the number and it’s testament to the growing relationships between all parties,’ he said at the time.

Of course he has to say that, but it was a line oft-repeated – at least until form dipped. It’s fine, we like it, we’re happy with it.

It meant that the Saracens players could not really be dropped when out of form, as once Jones had thought they were up to speed and then realised they were not he was stuck.

It meant cause-celebre picks like Marcus Smith, Joe Simmonds, Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt were never able to be drafted in when not initially selected.

It meant, understandably, Jones stuck with what he knew, rather than having the space to chuck in lots of new names.

But then again he also took Paolo Odogwu and Harry Randall into that 28 and left them unused.

WHAT NEXT?

England do not yet know when they will be playing next. They are trying to stage games against the USA and Canada at home – not in North America as initially planned.

In the meantime the panel recommended changes. Some read very much as personal Jones selections, with one glaring exception.

First they want ‘enhanced sports psychology’, ‘leadership development starting in the pathway’, ‘additional refereeing input’, more ‘use of data and analytics’ with the help of a common system tied up with Premiership clubs, with the view of ‘a proposed summer conference for England Rugby, professional clubs, referees and medics to find common ground and goals for the English game moving forward.’

All of those seem classic Jones. More data, more numbers, more control, work harder, spend more.

What is not Jones at all is having someone mark his homework. If a director of rugby overlord was introduced he would no doubt leave.

So when the RFU say they ‘will ensure external rugby experts inform all future debriefs to provide additional insight and support for the Head Coach’ to be ‘utilised after each campaign to provide regular reviews and support for the coaching strategy for future Six Nations campaigns and in the build up to Rugby World Cup 2023’ that seemingly is their compromise.

It is doubtful the RFU will ever name those experts.

It is a good idea to have people other than CEO Bill Sweeney holding Jones to account, if that is what this lot will do in the four campaigns he has left, but despite these recommendations and additions there is still no question who is in charge of English rugby – Eddie Jones.