Eddie Jones’ talk of English dominance is brazen and jars with Lions philosophy
Remember The Fast Show and Competitive Dad? That was the sketch in which small boys were regularly thrashed by their father at cricket and squash, the berk exulting to the heavens at winning the contests despite the obvious gulf in physical strength. I’m starting to think that Eddie Jones might be Competitive Coach.
I mean, we expect the sporting elite to want to be winning all of the time. That is what sets them apart from us mere mortals. But Jones has been getting carried away by the prospect of English supremacy.
He is determined that England should provide by far the lion’s share of the Lions for next year’s tour of South Africa. “I want to see a record. I want our side to be by far the dominant force,” he said.
Really, they should be. There’s an obvious gulf in player numbers. England, the last time we looked, had 383,154 registered, compared with Ireland’s 101,922; 83,120 in Wales; and Scotland’s 49,305. England ought to be the dominant force in Lions selection just as they should be in the Six Nations, but oddly, they don’t get to be Grand Slam champs every year.
This is one of the joys of sport and why we love it. Biggest isn’t necessarily best. The team who can send out an entirely fresh set of forwards on 50 minutes, no less hulking and square-shaped than those they are replacing, with another set on the bikes, another on the benches, another not even selected, and thousands more watching this equivalent of old Soviet Union tank parades in clubhouses up and down the land… doesn’t always win.
I know Jones is a bullish fellow, a controversialist who gives good quote, and I admire the little laughing kookaburra for all that he doesn’t stand on ceremony, but talk of records and dominance – dictionary meaning: “ruling or controlling; having or exerting authority” – is brazen even by his standards and jars with Lions history and philosophy.
But then English entitlement regarding the Lions is not new. In 1997, just before the first Test in that earlier expedition to South Africa, the Daily Express predicted a XV offering a measly two or three places to the Celtic nations, the rest going to Englishmen. As we know, coaches Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer chose a somewhat different line-up for the ascent of “f****n’ Everest” including a front row of Tom Smith, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace, plus Gregor Townsend at 10 and Scott Gibbs to vaporise Os du Randt.
And consider this, penned by the gentleman from the Times a few months prior to the last tour, New Zealand in 2017: “It is about this time… when traditionally we start scratching our heads and the non-Scots smirk as we wonder if any players from north of the Border will make the Lions Test team. Then the smirkers take it one step further to ask whether any of them will actually make the squad.”
Is this really a pastime among the English correspondents? Easily pleased, so they are. I doubt that the best of England are not anything other than gratified to see the best of Scotland, Wales and Ireland at check-in when they muster for the start of a tour. Surely at that moment the Red Rose contingent will not be caring that one of Jones’ records hasn’t been achieved, that dominance is not absolute.
My favourite rugby stories tend to be Lions ones, and about Lions togetherness. JPR Williams told me about Billy Steele teaching the 1974 South African tourists the words to Flower of Scotland, how the players wouldn’t get off the team bus until they’d finished a rousing rendition, adding: “Billy’s not really had the acclaim he deserves for that.” And Gareth Edwards from the same tour stressed that cheerleading from Englishmen who didn’t make the Tests was vital to the triumph. He said: “Bob Hiller was a Harlequin whose manner on the pitch was almost pompous but there wasn’t a better mucker. He was always being denied by JPR but would read out letters he’d sent home: ‘Dear Mum, playing great but, no, I haven’t got in the team again’. He had us in stitches.”
Great tales, and I’m sure even Eddie would enjoy them.
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