If we have learned anything about Eddie Jones over the past seven years, it is that he will not pass up an opportunity to fight his corner.
Here are some points that Jones is sure to make in any bid to save his job. To be clear, none of the arguments are bullet proof and already there would seem to be plenty of justification for England turning to someone else.
Jones should go if it becomes apparent that he has lost the players. We can expect him to have his say, though.
Proximity of the World Cup
It has been perplexing to hear England’s representatives openly prioritise the World Cup and continually insist that they are on the right track, but Jones has evidently been given a mandate to think that way by Bill Sweeney and Conor O’Shea.
With a mere nine Tests until the 2023 tournament begins, it would be ballsy to cut ties at this stage because of Jones’ track record. He has consistently overachieved at World Cups, taking Australia to the 2003 final before acting as a consultant to Jake White with the champion Springboks four years later.
Jones steered Japan past South Africa in 2015 and then led a strong campaign with England four years later, producing two excellent performances in the quarter- and semi-finals. There is also a trend of Jones’ teams underachieving prior to World Cups.
Australia lost three of four games in the 2003 Tri Nations. Japan were beaten by Tonga, Fiji and USA in 2015 before playing a flanker, Hendrik Tui, on the wing in a warm-up game against Georgia. England endured a grisly 2018, which could have been worse without Angus Gardner missing Owen Farrell’s shoulder-charge on André Esterhuizen, before seizing momentum in the following Six Nations.
This does feel different now Jones has overseen two underwhelming years in succession. But he has an undeniable history of peaking at the World Cup, which he says England will do again with the help of a two-month build-up. The draw is kind, too. Navigate a group comprising Argentina, Japan, Samoa and Chile and there will be a quarter-final against one of Australia, Fiji or Wales.
England should be confident of making a semi-final and Jones relishes devising tailored plans for such matches. He will also know that, unless Steve Hansen or Wayne Smith becomes available unexpectedly, the RFU will not be able to bring in as much World Cup pedigree.
Benefits of a second cycle and a full deck
Excuses have grown tiresome, particularly those about innate features of the landscape such as Ireland’s ability to build cohesion. Yet the Saracens salary-cap scandal was a unique curveball that evidently hurled a spanner into England’s 2021 and caused them to regroup.
And though everyone must deal with untimely injuries, Jones should present the RFU panel with the squad that he has in mind for 2023. It will be strong, more so because there are a number of experienced individuals that can be reintegrated.
Joe Marler and Dan Cole are ready-made scrummaging experts, with Joe Heyes and Bevan Rodd sure to figure on the lead-up to 2027. George Ford could be like a new signing and should add attacking clarity. Pending his recovery from an Achilles tendon injury, the 29-year-old will be well-suited to what England are trying to achieve with their attacking patterns.
Similarly, Elliot Daly is the roaming link man that England’s backline has been missing. Fitting him in a back three with Freddie Steward and a flyer like Henry Arundell offers enticing potential.
My sample 33-man World Cup squad below sees Ted Hill, a bopping blindside flanker, included. Dan Kelly and Ollie Lawrence are highly promising specialist centres that are healthy again and Anthony Watson represents another veteran capable of adding value. Everyone here – apart from Val Rapava-Ruskin and Ollie Hassell-Collins, both in training squads recently – has played for England under Jones at some point:
Loosehead props: Ellis Genge, Joe Marler, Val Rapava-Ruskin
Hookers: Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jamie George, Jack Walker
Tighthead props: Dan Cole, Kyle Sinckler, Will Stuart
Locks: Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, Jonny Hill, David Ribbans
Back-rowers: Tom Curry, Alex Dombrandt, Courtney Lawes, Ted Hill, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola
Scrum-halves: Alex Mitchell, Jack van Poortvliet, Ben Youngs
Fly-halves: Owen Farrell, George Ford, Marcus Smith
Centres: Dan Kelly, Ollie Lawrence, Henry Slade
Back three: Henry Arundell, Elliot Daly, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson
Some of Jones’ favourites – Mako Vunipola, Charlie Ewels, Lewis Ludlam, Sam Underhill, Manu Tuilagi, Jonny May, and Jack Nowell – do not make this group, though Ben Youngs and Billy Vunipola do. Joe Cokanasiga, Max Malins, Adam Radwan, Guy Porter, Joe Marchant and Tommy Freeman are further backline options, with Raffi Quirke a tenacious wildcard at scrum-half if he can avoid further fitness setbacks. Joe Launchbury may find a new lease of life in Japan. Such is the strength of the back row that Zach Mercer, Sam Underhill, Sam Simmonds and Jack Willis are on the standby list.
In any case, Jones will be able to demonstrate that he has quality at his disposal. The panel will, naturally, wonder why he has not been getting a tune out of good players – and this will take up the most time.
New faces and tactical expansion
Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward are the poster-boys as far as players to have come through to become regulars in this World Cup cycle. Jonny Hill should pull through if he cuts out avoidable penalties and Jack van Poortvliet has looked good in spite of tricky patches. By persevering with the union of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell, Jones has given himself another midfield option – albeit perhaps only for a mid-game reshuffle rather than as a starting partnership.
Jones has always known that he can lean on an axis of George Ford and Farrell, with a centre duo of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade also established. Other centre combinations, perhaps featuring Ollie Lawrence and Dan Kelly, as well as back-row configurations have to be trialled over the coming months. Jones left it as late as the summer warm-up fixtures to introduce back-row tag-team Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Mark Wilson was an unsung grafter who came up on the rails ahead of 2019.
Jones’ allusions to playing differently, allied to the claim that teams must conceal tactics prior to the World Cup, have felt nebulous at times. But England have increased their running from 300 per game in 2020 to over 415 in both 2022, while reducing their reliance on kicking. In 2020, they put boot to ball 38 times per match. That average, according to Opta, was just over 25 in 2022.
Against New Zealand and South Africa to end the autumn series, England accrued an aggregate of total of 31 kicks. In their 52-13 victory over Japan, they had kicked 37 times. It was almost as if they put away that aspect deliberately and focused on their running game, which showed flashes of progress against the All Blacks before being shut down by the Springboks. The aim in 2023 will be to strike a blend and to become more “unpredictable”.
In adversity against Ireland in March, after Charlie Ewels’ red card, England showed that they could cause problems with set-piece power and kick-pressure. Jones’ hope is that the phase-play clicks and becomes more clinical to complement that. Jonny May put it best on the back of the draw with New Zealand when he suggested that England were further along at this corresponding stage four years ago, but that they were working towards a narrower game plan.
A glance at the efficiency rates of nations around the world indicates that England’s attack is lagging behind. Ireland, France and South Africa are all in double figures for entries into the opposition 22 per game. Interestingly, New Zealand returned the exact same average of entries as England (9.2), but were vastly more efficient, averaging 3.3 points per entry to England’s 2.
Joe Schmidt will have had something to do with that, which leads us on nicely to the final section.
A look to the All Blacks
Ian Foster’s future as New Zealand honcho appeared to be hanging by a thread following a 2-1 series loss to Ireland. Then, ahead of an ominous trip to South Africa, Jason Ryan was brought in to oversee the forwards with a remit to steel the defensive maul. At the same time, Joe Schmidt assumed control of the attack.
It has not been entirely smooth sailing since. South Africa beat the All Blacks 26-10 at the start of August and Argentina subjected them to a chastening home loss – sound familiar? New Zealand do not look to be a force comparable with Ireland, France or South Africa and many of their fans are pining for Scott Robertson. Before capitulating at Twickenham, though, they were on course for a seventh consecutive Test win.
Jones, as well as Conor O’Shea and Bill Sweeney, must shoulder a large portion of the blame for the coaching landscape underneath him. Then again, New Zealand’s up-turn has shown the benefits of new lieutenants and greater clarity. John Mitchell, like Schmidt a former Test head coach before slipping back into an assistant role, seemed vital to England’s 2019 campaign. Jones may well ask for one more shake-up.