November 29, 2018
Graham Henry used to complain when he was in charge of Wales that rugby there was like a shower without a temperature control: it was either too hot or too cold.
Eddie Jones is having the same problem in England. A few months after calls for his head following a fifth successive loss that led to South Africa winning the summer series, there was a sense of euphoria after an autumn campaign in which three matches out of four were won and the other, to New Zealand, was lost by point after a late try was ruled out.
But just as England were not a basket case in the summer, nor are they now the best team in the world. There were four starters against Australia last weekend who had taken the field at Murrayfield at the start of the losing streak. Of those, only Jonny May and Maro Itoje were in the same position: Owen Farrell moved from centre to outside-half and Courtney Lawes from the back row to lock. Ben Youngs missed the Scotland match because of injury.
The team has changed – not least because more than half of Jones’s pack were out of action during the autumn campaign – but so has the coach. No longer does he talk about how he wants his players to make him and his coaching team redundant as they learn to cope unaided with the ebb and flow of a game. He has become prescriptive. And if he may not be in charge of the best side come the start of the World Cup, he will have one of the biggest.
This is the era of the super coach. One reason there is no longer talk of a gap between the hemispheres is the export of the likes of Jones, Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland. They change attitudes before style of play, as did Vern Cotter in lifting Scotland off the bottom. Gatland and Schmidt quickly recognised that their charges were less intuitive than players in New Zealand but worked hard and absorbed information. Jones has the handicap of operating in parallel with the club system underpinning his team and is now taking the same approach.
After two years in charge of Wales, Gatland tried to empower his squad, giving them more responsibility and initiative. The change did not last long, with players telling him they preferred to have everything laid down. Schmidt’s control has never been less than absolute and if at the beginning of the professional era the Celtic nations struggled against the major southern hemisphere nations because they were lacking when it came to strength and conditioning and were loose tactically, they now lack nothing when it comes to preparation.
A significant feature of Jones’s gear-shift this year has been the rise of Owen Farrell. Always a key player for England, he has been switched to his preferred position of fly-half and made co-captain with Dylan Hartley, whose playing time this month was rationed. Farrell was on the field for all bar 46 minutes: the first half against Japan, when England’s game fell apart, and the final six against Australia when the match was won.
As a fly-half, Farrell is not in the mould of Beauden Barrett, Bernard Foley or even George Ford. He is a master at executing a gameplan, his head coach’s voice on the field, and fiercely competitive. The co-captaincy dynamic seems to mean Farrell taking the lead on the field and Hartley off it, the former not appearing to be one concerned about massaging egos or mending rifts. He has a single-minded determination that England, having fallen behind Ireland and Wales, need in the coming 10 months.
England have become more direct. Joe Cokanasiga, Ben Te’o and Manu Tuilagi patrol their backline while the Vunipola brothers should be fit for the start of the Six Nations. A feature of 2012 were the slow starts England made: after the first two matches of the year, they only led at half-time twice, against South Africa in the final summer Test, and New Zealand this month.
Jones bills his replacements as finishers, but it was in the third quarter they were at their most dangerous this month, except against the All Blacks. That had less to do with the bench and more with the advice proffered at half-time. Add to that the way England’s direct approach saps energy from opponents and it makes them a hard team to put away.
They have made strides at the breakdown, where Brad Shields was particularly effective against Australia. Part of the reason for that is the momentum they are generating in the carry, having found a way of storming the gainline without Billy Vunipola. They no longer try to move slow ball, and if they will not be the favourites to win the Six Nations with trips to Dublin and Cardiff, they have a game suited to playing away.
They face Ireland on the opening weekend, a clash that should provide a thunderous conclusion to the first round. Ireland have never been so consistently good, beating every other tier-one nation in the last year and overcoming New Zealand for the first time in Dublin. They have developed strength in depth and able to camouflage the loss of players not long ago considered indispensable, such as Conor Murray.
England will be underdogs, less than a year after they were picked apart by Ireland at Twickenham, but they have given up any attempt to win beauty contests and they are likely to be at their most potent towards the end of 2019 rather than the beginning. And they have found a way, one that is about keeping a coach in his job, neither hot nor cold but at a constant temperature.