International rugby has become a black and white world with a trace of gold and green. Eighteen months after going down under to Australia at Twickenham and out of the World Cup, England stand second to New Zealand in the world rankings having broken any number of records under the Tasmanian who was lured from Cape Town’s Stormers to mop up after a storm.
From the ashes of a campaign in which England became the first hosts to exit at the group stage has come a world record-equalling run of Test victories for a tier-one nation, back-to-back Six Nations titles, the breaking of an 82-year record for successive victories in the championship, a 3-0 whitewashing of Australia on tour and the respect of the All Blacks.
Defeat in Dublin last weekend meant New Zealand’s record of 18 straight victories was not broken and England did not become the first side to record back-to-back grand slams in the Six Nations era, and for a side still in the building process it was a just outcome. As they failed to adapt quickly to Italy’s tactics after a tackle, so they were unable to overcome Ireland slowing down their ball at the breakdown, not least by stopping players getting back on their feet quickly.
Problem-solving is the next phase of the programme. Eddie Jones recognised when he arrived in England that what the team needed was not an overhaul but fine tuning. Last week he again paid tribute to his predecessor, acknowledging that Stuart Lancaster had rebuilt the squad after another ruinous World Cup and not had the opportunity to finish what he started, but the past 15 months have revealed a profound difference between the pair that has allowed the team to breathe in rarefied air rather than wheeze.
After England had been knocked out of the 2015 World Cup and Lancaster’s position looked untenable Jones, who was then in charge of Japan, said the position of head coach of the largest and most affluent rugby union in the world needed someone of experience who would not be spooked by media heckling and had shoulders broad enough to keep external pressure off the players.
As someone who had been involved in three World Cups – with Australia in 2003, South Africa four years later and Japan in 2015, enduring only two defeats – and had been a coach for most of the professional era,he was laying down his credentials for the post, even if he insisted that the view of Table Mountain he enjoyed from his office at the Stormers was not one he wished to swap for a room at England’s training base in Bagshot. The lure of another World Cup campaign swayed him and rare has been the week when he has not mentioned the tournament.
Jones wrote a column for a rugby website before the 2013 Lions tour in which he outlined his coaching philosophy, one he has not diverted from four years on and which explains how he has changed England. When he was appointed, the former South Africa second-row Bakkies Botha, a 2007 World Cup winner who was on the losing side to Jones’s Japan eight years later in Brighton, said: “As a coach, Eddie is about cleverness, not brutality or strength. You get a surprise package with him.”
The first surprise was that Jones opted for a midfield that did not include a gainline basher, something that had become de rigueur at the top level. He has deviated from that only twice with England: in the first Test in Australia when he moved Owen Farrell back to outside-half and started Luther Burrell at inside-centre, only to change his mind 30 minutes in and switch Farrell back to 12 and bring George Ford off the bench; and against Italy last month when he started Ben Te’o at outside-centre in place of Jonathan Joseph.
“Too many centres have come up through the age groups where size has been everything,” Jones wrote four years ago. “Just because they can smash their way over the gainline, coaches don’t seem to require them to work on their passing. That neglect of young players has repercussions. It stifles a lot of attacks when they graduate to senior level. Rugby needs to change. We have to get that big 100kg schoolboy centre to practise 50 passes a day. Passing is not a chore but a skill to be nurtured. I don’t care how good your players think they are, they almost certainly are not good enough. Fruit and veg and 50 passes a day. It’s good for them. And they will be much better players at the end of it. They might even be able to run in an overlap without smashing a defender to pieces.”
And so he has persisted with Ford at outside-half, apart from one match when he did not waste time admitting he had been wrong, Farrell at 12 and Jonathan Joseph at 13. The trio combined in the opening half against Scotland last week to seal victory with three tries from lineouts that owed everything to speed, subtlety and cunning and nothing to brute force, and it was Ford and Farrell who combined in Cardiff when the match looked lost to create the winning try for Elliot Daly.
Ford was dropped for the match against Wales in the 2015 World Cup and England’s attacking strategy became incoherent. A common failing for England since they won the 2003 World Cup against Jones’s Australia has been selection, an area in which Jones has been strong. He said four years ago that a successful side needed a strong spine at full-back, outside-half, scrum-half, hooker and No8, positions he has rarely tinkered with since succeeding Lancaster.
Dylan Hartley has started all 18 matches under Jones, Mike Brown and Ford 17 and Ben Youngs 14. Billy Vunipola has missed six through injury and unavailability. The only voluntary changes Jones has made in the positions against tier-one opposition have been relegating Ford to the bench for the first Test in Australia and picking Danny Care ahead of Ben Youngs three times, including his first match in charge, in Scotland last year.
In contrast the spine changed constantly under Lancaster. In the 20 months up to the World Cup defeat by Australia only Brown was a consistent pick. Farrell started out at 10, lost his place to Ford and then regained it; Youngs was initially behind Lee Dickson and then struggled to see off the challenge of Care; Hartley made way at times for Tom Youngs and Rob Webber; and Billy Vunipola had 16 starts to Ben Morgan’s 10. A strong spine has allowed England to stand taller and, when they are fully upright, the spine itself can be looked at.
Why Jones turned to Hartley
The captaincy is another point of difference between the two regimes. Before the 2013 Lions tour Jones said he did not see Chris Robshaw, then the England captain, leading the side. “He has not always been able to make his voice heard to the referee in big matches,” he wrote. “I work with my captains all the time on how they talk to the referee. You need someone who is close to the action and fluent at speaking Referee.”
Jones turned to Hartley, not the obvious choice given the hooker’s history of red and yellow cards but he was looking for more than a leader on the pitch: Hartley is usually on the bench for the final 20 minutes of a match, which coaches point out is when a Test is usually won and lost, but one reason he was chosen was his ability to interact with everyone, whether senior players or kitchen staff.
“There is a science to the plan and then there is the art,” said Jones last year. “The art is all about relationships.” He mused that overtaking New Zealand at the head of the world rankings would require a mental and physical conversion for his players, the latter leading to a convergence of northern and southern hemisphere styles, which manifested itself against Scotland: the ability to win and retain possession, and aggressive defence supplemented by swift attacks. “We are not going to copy but do it our own way; our own English way.”
And so they have but Jones will now not see the majority of his squad until late summer as they will be with the Lions in New Zealand, a tour beyond his control, which is probably why he refuses to talk about it and why arranging a match against the All Blacks at the end of the year would be a rugby, if not financial, gamble. They should continue to gambol until the scheduled showdown with the World Cup holders next year.
Lee’s sin-binning and the time-added-on conundrum
The final round of the Six Nations was not as explosive as two years ago but France’s victory over Wales will be talked about for years, because of the way it ended rather than what had gone on before.
Nearly 20 minutes were played after the countdown clock reached zero as France hammered away at Wales’s line and were awarded a succession of penalties. They replaced a prop in circumstances that made Wales suspicious, George North claimed he was bitten and the Wales prop Samson Lee was sent to the sin-bin but it did not prove to be the end of his match.
Lee was allowed to return because play was still going on after his 10 minutes in the sin-bin were up, but that does raise a point in law. Rugby union, unlike football, does not have time added on. The clock is stopped when there is a pause in play for injury, a television match official review, warnings to players and, less common this season, reset scrums. So once 80 minutes are up, that is it: there is no 81st minute.
Damien Chouly’s match-winning try was scored five seconds short of the hour-mark after the start of the second half: the time has been written as 99 minutes and 55 seconds but that took no account of the minute the first half ran over the 40. Lee was sent to the sin-bin in time that does not exist in rugby union. Technically he should have stayed there, not least because with the clock having stopped, there was no one taking into account the breaks in play, and there were many; so when he came back on 10 minutes after he had seen yellow, he had not served his full stint.
Lee’s sin-binning technically reads 80-80, not 80+1-80+11 because rugby does not have a time added-on rule. There is no way a soccer match could have gone on and on as it did in Paris because once time is up, the referee blows for full-time; in rugby union, there has to be a stoppage in play – in this case many stoppages.
Still want more?
• Attention turns to the Lions now, and Warren Gatland has four weeks to put together a squad capable of challenging the All Blacks. Rob Kitson runs the rule over his options
• Six Nations verdict: Guardian writers give their highs and lows
• Eddie Jones’s side may have won the title with a round of matches to spare, but, as Andy Bull writes, ‘but for one England try it could have been a five-way tie’
• Newport Gwent Dragons are to be taken over by the WRU to prevent the region from folding
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