• A Period of Silence Would Now Be Welcome

    In the aftermath of England’s loss to Scotland at Murrayfield last week, a British rugby writer said of Eddie Jones that “a period of quiet reflection, with an emphasis on the ‘quiet’ is now required” – shades of Clement Attlee’s famous rebuke to Harold Laski in the postwar British Parliament when he said, “a period of silence from you would now be welcome”.

    It might certainly be hoped that the observation by former England hooker, Steve Thompson, that the Scotland defeat showed that “England are not as good as they think they are” (or, at least, as Eddie Jones says they are) will be taken on board.  And it might also be an opportune moment to re-assess Eddie Jones’ credentials as a coach.

    It should first be conceded that Eddie Jones inherited an England team at a low ebb, following their disastrous dismissal in 2015 from the World Cup tournament of which they were hosts.  The comparative success they have since enjoyed has no doubt been seen in greater relief than might otherwise have been the case, given what went before – and might partly explain why Eddie Jones has been welcomed as a saviour or demi-god whose every word is treated as gospel and repeated ad nauseam (literally) by an adoring media.

    If we are to make a proper assessment, we should start by taking into account the huge resources, both financially and in terms of player numbers he has had to play with.  Even an average coach should have been able to turn these to account.

    Has he, however, done better than an “average” coach might have done?  Let us first recognise those things he has done well.  Almost all commentators (and his players as well) accept that he has worked hard to make his players fitter (some would even say that he has, on occasions, worked his players too hard, so that they are exhausted by match day).  But England are certainly now up to international standard in terms of fitness (as they may not have been before), though it is doubtful if they now have any advantage in that respect over other top teams.

    As a selector, he has a somewhat spotty record.  He has been loyal to those he likes – Dylan Hartley and James Haskell example – and that is a plus, but he has been slow at times to recognise limitations in those he selects – as in the case of Chris Robshaw – and he has sometimes resisted making more adventurous selections.

    He has clearly succeeded in building the confidence and self-belief of his team, which were sadly lacking when he took over.  But there is a downside to his constant assertion that England are destined for World Cup glory and world number one ranking.  It has certainly helped to build his own image with the English rugby public, but unrealistic expectations can be just as oppressive for the team as downplaying its chances.

    A fitter and more confident England are undoubtedly achievements, but more should be expected of a top coach.  England may be training harder, but are they training to better effect?  Are they building their skills and techniques?  Are they better able to change tactics and strategies mid-game?

    Eddie Jones has shown little aptitude in these respects.  As confident prospects of a Grand Slam and a Six Nations title crumbled in the Scotland game, England’s defensive weaknesses and apparently complete absence of any attacking ideas were clearly shown up.  It may be beginning to dawn on the English rugby public that these deficiencies have to be remedied (and if not by the coach, then by whom?) if England are to compete for top honours.

    The former England loose forward, Neil Back, has warned that, if Jones does not remedy them, England could well lose the remaining two games – against France and Ireland – of the Six Nations Championship.

    We should never forget that Eddie Jones’ stint as Wallaby coach came to an unsuccessful end, which may explain why he so much enjoys the adulation heaped upon him by British media who are unduly grateful for small mercies.  It will come as a welcome relief to the international rugby public if he now refrains from making extravagant and unsupported claims about England’s future international standing and prospects and if the English rugby media treat those claims with a little more scepticism.

    England may yet overcome their current problems and confound us all by soaring to new heights.  If and when that happens, that will be the time to celebrate.  In the meantime, a less garrulous Eddie Jones would be welcome. When it comes to boasting, less is usually more – and timing is everything.  It always works better if it comes after, and not before, actual achievement.

    Bryan Gould

    27 February 2018