Wily Jones yet to put a foot wrong
What a year England have endured and enjoyed.
Bundled out embarrassingly early of a Rugby World Cup they had high hopes of winning, they rebounded by sweeping all before them on their way to a Six Nations Grand Slam.
But not content with conquering Europe, they then completed a series whitewash over recent World Cup finalists Australia to bookend their season with a shock that arguably trumped that with which it had begun.
Central to that Lazarus-like revival has been head coach Eddie Jones whose contribution has been greater than any of his players including headline acts Owen Farrell, James Haskell and Maro Itoje – and his influence has arguably not received the amount of credit it deserves.
Over the last few months Jones has delivered a coaching masterclass that frustrated Europe’s finest and most recently tortured his native Australia – and let’s not forget how he orchestrated Japan’s mind-blowing victory over South Africa at the World Cup.
Remember, the tour Down Under came at the end of a gruelling season for England’s leading players that began last summer with a pre-World Cup camp.
Even allowing for the sooner-than-expected end to their World Cup campaign and the subsequent respite that offered, these players were supposed to be committed but battle weary.
Against the odds, Jones conjured and fostered the kind of spirit and energy levels more common at the start of a season that they maintained along with an equally impressive and pivotal mental resilience throughout what was a bruising and enthralling series.
Preparation for the challenge of the Wallabies began long before the team touched down in Australia and can perhaps be traced back to the moments after England’s Grand Slam-clinching win over France back in March.
It was then that Jones first referenced ‘Bodyline’, the infamous Ashes battle between fierce cricketing rivals England and Australia in the 1930s, and immediately deflected attention away from his resurgent team.
According to Jones, the overtly physical approach of the English on that occasion offered a blueprint of what was required against the Wallabies and he educated those members of his squad not up-to-speed with cricket history.
It was a clever and telling psychological blow from a man not afraid to launch such verbal grenades and having planted the seed he would return to tend it again and again before and during the series.
The mind games did not stop there with Australian broadcasters Fox Sports playing their part with a tour promo that made of fun of England’s recent shortcomings against their hosts.
It was a questionable move and was gleefully pounced upon by Jones who labelled it ‘disrespectful’ and no doubt used to strengthen his players’ resolve.
Then there was Jones’ recruitment of Australian rugby league legend Andrew Johns.
His presence at an England training session sent the desired shockwaves through the Australian media that had already been irked by the presence of ex-NRL star Ben Te’o in the visitors’ squad and former Australian international Glen Ella in their coaching box.
But make no mistake the series was won thanks to some more orthodox coaching methods.
Countless coaching calls laid the foundation for England’s success, including the headline-grabbing appointment of Dylan Hartley as his captain at the start of the year along with the input of sports psychologist Jeremy Snape, but two specific decisions stand out in their most recent series.
Luther Burrell started the first Test at No.12 but was replaced in the 29th minute with defensive concerns triggering a tactical change that Jones later put down to a ‘gut feeling’.
The subsequent introduction of George Ford at fly-half saw starting No.10 Farrell shift to inside-centre and the return to the 10-12 axis that had carried England to Grand Slam glory.
The switch inspired a comeback and proved crucial in what was a tone-setting 39-28 victory in Brisbane.
Jones would show once again his willingness to tear up the script in the third Test when flanker Teimana Harrison was withdrawn on the half hour.
The Northampton openside tore up the Premiership last season and rightfully claimed a place in England’s plans but in only his second international appearance his inability to make his presence felt at the breakdown prompted an early exit.
The not so insignificant physical presence of Courtney Lawes shored up the England challenge with the ever-impressive Itoje moving from lock into a shuffled back row to underline his versatility.
It was another bold move and a crucial decision in what was a thrilling 44-40 victory in Sydney.
But these are just the latest examples of Jones’ no-fear approach to coaching.
He occupies one of the most high-pressure coaching roles in world rugby – second only to the All Blacks’ hotseat – but you would not know it.
Jones acts as if, and most likely believes, that he has nothing to prove to his employers, fans or the media – his rugby CV speaks for itself and grants him a priceless freedom and ensures the faith of his players.
In contrast, you sense that his relatively-inexperienced predecessor Stuart Lancaster may have been inhibited by what many perceived as a need to justify his position and prove himself to his doubters.
And that, in turn, may have impacted on his squad’s ability to play to their potential and deliver on the biggest stage.
As vast Jones’ coaching experience, his enthusiasm clearly remains. Whether taking an active part in his side’s warm-up, despite historic health concerns, or riling rivals, his passion is clear for all to see.
Both his confidence and fervour no doubt filter down to his assistants Steve Borthwick Paul Gustard and Neil Hatley who have also been key figures in the rejuvenated set-piece and cast-iron defence that has laid the foundation for England’s success.
The lesson is not over yet with Jones’ sights set firmly on usurping New Zealand as the world’s best side but he, and the rest of us, are going to have to wait a little while for that intriguing match-up.
The All Blacks’ end of year plans do not include England this year and the British & Irish Lions are venturing to New Zealand next year and the delay will only fuel the debate as to who would triumph.