The atrocities in Paris have dominated our minds, and made the disruption of the European rugby competitions of very little importance. Nevertheless almost everyone agrees that the show must go on and the resumption , as far as possible, of normal life is the right response to the terrorists.
In fact, of course, most matches were played last weekend, only those in Paris and elsewhere in France being postponed. The first round of both cups has been successful for English clubs (and on Thursday this week Harlequins also demolished Cardiff Blues). It may be they have profited from England’s early exit from the World Cup. Their players were back with their clubs sooner, and were also spared a hard and bruising quarter-final. Be that as it may, the first round of European competition serves as a salutary reminder that there are an awful lot of good players in England – good young ones especially – and that it’s a question of getting the right structure and style of play if their national team is to flourish.
As I’ve written here before, I think England would have been wise to have stuck with Stuart Lancaster who would have learned from the mistakes made in this year’s RWC. But he has been booted out – treated shabbily, I would say – and England have hurried to appoint Eddie Jones in his place. This may well prove to be a case of “act in haste, repent at leisure”.
Jones’s reputation has soared because of his handling of Japan in the World Cup. He certainly had them playing attractive rugby, and the victory over South Africa was remarkable. South Africa that day were first complacent and then rattled, but I doubt if anyone believes Japan would have come even close to beating them if that match had come later in the pool stage.
More to the immediate point I wonder if it has occurred to Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the RFU, and the others involved in the decision to offer the England job to Jones that Japan may have been just the right team for him to coach: one that was very willing to learn, to take instruction and act on instruction. Lancaster was condemned by some for approaching the England job as a schoolmaster, but, according to David Campese, Jones’s approach to a coaching job is also that of a schoolmaster.
Jones is 55, and has been coaching for a long time. He has had notable successes, first with the Brumbies and then as the coach who took Australia to the 2003 World Cup final. He was also the assistant coach of South Africa when they won the 2007 Cup. Some credit him with improving the Springbok back play then, but my memory of that Cup is that South Africa’s success was built on their traditional forward strength and Fourie du Preez’s kicking and control at the base of the scrum.
On the other hand, his tenure as coach of Australia ended badly. He was dismissed in 2005 after his team had lost eight matches out of nine – no England coach has ever had such a dreadful run. Then he failed as coach of Queensland Reds, and his tenure as head coach of Saracens didn’t last long. His team there played a very restricted limited game, reportedly because he told them that this was all they were capable of.
Jones talks a very good game, though his judgment is not always as smart as his remarks. Before Japan played Scotland you will remember that he observed that Scotland were a first-half team who rarely scored tries after the interval. In fact throughout the tournament Vern Cotter’s men regularly struggled in the first half and played well in the second, scoring indeed four second-half tries against – wait for it – Jones’s Japan. Jones reminds me rather of his fellow Australian Matt Williams who also talked a good game when he was appointed Scotland’s coach after the 2003 World Cup; it wasn’t long before we were eager to get rid of him.
One has the impression that Ritchie & Co have hurried to make a high-profile appointment in order to appease the Press and excite the public. It would be no great surprise if Jones met with some immediate success. A new manager/coach is often invigorating, and there is no shortage of good players in England. The problem, as ever, is getting selection right. But he has been given a four-year contract, and I wonder if he will see it out.
In any case England’s chief problem is not the coach. Since Clive Woodward’s team won the World Cup in 2003, there has been a succession of coaches – Woodward himself, Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton, Martin Johnson and Lancaster – and all have failed to deliver the success the RFU expects. The RFU’s problem is the same as the FA’s: the structure of the game in England where the clubs come first and the national team second. Coaches are not magicians, as good ones are always quick to admit.