As a statement of who he is, Eddie Jones could hardly have stage-managed his appearance at last week’s Six Nations launch any better. The pugnacious little England coach rocked up sporting a whopper of a black eye complete with bandages which did little to hide the extensive damage.
Take your pick of excuses – a bathroom slip, mixed martial arts session or a training camp injury – all three came straight from the horse’s mouth. Jones was so flippant that it appeared he didn’t really care what the assembled media made of it all.
If Vern Cotter is the Greta Garbo of Six Nations coaches, famously reluctant to talk about himself, Jones is the Donald Trump of the tournament, famously reluctant to talk about anyone else. It is only a matter of time before the England boss, pictured below right, is referred to as “the Eddie”.
I was sceptical when he was appointed. I was in good company and all of us unbelievers were proved horribly wrong. Oddly enough I still have a feeling that this love affair between English rugby and “Fast” Eddie, that has so far resulted in a 14-match winning streak, may yet end in tears. Relationships are only tested in the fires of adversity and thus far it has been plain sailing on Jones’ watch, although there are a few storms clouds brewing on the horizon.
This England team is a good one but not yet a great one, the players are obviously international class but how many could you identify as world class, at the very pinnacle of their position? Their own coach consistently says the answer is none, which is nonsense, but Jones’ side certainly can’t match the number of world class players in Clive Woodward’s 2003 World Cup-winning squad.
There is much to admire, not least the Ford/Farrell midfield double bill, an old pals act as these two go all the way back to their early teens. Ford has the vision, Farrell the boot but the pairing is not the most muscular in the Test arena and playing the two together invites the big beasts in the opposition to run into that channel.
England’s back row has been wonderfully effective but how many of them will play this tournament? James Haskell is doubtful, while Chris Robshaw and Billy Vunipola have already been written out of the script and the latter is a huge loss. Vunipola’s ability to give England momentum no matter the odds or the number of opponents stacked against him is priceless. Whether his probable replacement, Nathan Hughes of Wasps, can do the same is doubtful. The 25-year-old Fijian is performing well below the heady levels he attained last season.
The backline has threats across the board and if Jonathan Joseph doesn’t start for the Lions in June it is only because he will have broken a leg between now and then. But if Jonny May gets the nod over Anthony Watson (posted injured last Friday) the Gloucester man will come in for an aerial bombardment from every team England play.
However, that is little more than a pinprick to Jones and his coaching team who are fighting fires of a different sort. England have made their mark in the game by fielding big-boned forward packs that bully the opposition at the set piece and keep doing so until they squeal for mercy. With George Kruis returning from a broken cheek, the second row of the scrum will probably consist of Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes, two big athletic locks who will be a handful for anyone. The problems come at the coal face.
Dan Cole is turning up in a Leicester shirt every weekend but you wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the England tighthead is actually playing for them. In a team that is low on confidence he looks no better than his peers, handled comfortably by Gordon Reid last weekend, the Glasgow man probably getting the better of his illustrious opponent at Scotstoun in that opening European game.
He may be an entirely different animal in an England shirt, and Jones has a way of getting the best out of his players, but then again he may not. Dispiriting defeats at club level can seep into your soul and undermine the self belief that is the bedrock of elite athletes. Oh, and the same applies to scrum-half Ben Youngs who might as well have been sat in the stands for all the impact he had on Glasgow’s final pool match.
Dylan Hartley is short of game time after yet another ban, the seventh of his professional career if you are still counting. In the absence of loosehead Mako Vunipola, at least for the opening weekend, England will field either Joe Marler if he’s fit or Nick Mullin if he’s not. Mullin is a good club player for Wasps, a side that is not noted for scrummaging prowess, instead they tend to use the set scrum as a vehicle for restarting the game rather than for milking penalties.
And across the channel Guy Novès is sitting and plotting how best to give English rugby the same treatment someone, or something, meted out to Eddie Jones last week.