‘I owe a lot to Eddie’: Sinckler hails Jones and looks forward with England

It says everything about Kyle Sinckler that he felt the need to pay Eddie Jones a visit when the dust was still settling on his sacking as England head coach. Jones has spoken about how pleased he was with the number of messages he received from his players but when all it takes is the push of a few buttons, it requires a certain character to seek him out and offer gratitude in person. Sinckler, however, had made his mind up. “It was important for me to have that conversation with him face-to-face.”

So it was that Sinckler travelled to England’s base in Bagshot to give Jones his thanks for moulding him from a rough diamond into one of the world’s leading tighthead props. To apologise, too, for Sinckler holds himself in part responsible for Jones’s departure. “I felt I’d probably let Eddie down, because if I’m playing well enough and the team is playing well enough, that change wouldn’t have been made.”

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Sinckler is undoubtedly one of Jones’s success stories. He was struggling to hold down his place at Harlequins but he was taken on the 2016 tour of Australia – along with Ellis Genge, who was similarly raw at the time – and there began a journey which has already included a World Cup final and two British & Irish Lions tours.

The affinity was mutual and Jones has never seemed more protective than after Wales’s 2019 victory over England, before which Warren Gatland publicly took aim at Sinckler. Indeed, you sense Jones would have been humbled by Sinckler’s insistence on a personal goodbye.

“I owe a lot to Eddie,” says Sinckler. “He’s a good man. I can only speak about my personal experiences with Eddie and he has been a big part of my life. When I was at Quins and I couldn’t buy a game, he took me on that trip to Australia in 2016 and that really shaped my career – not just my career, my life. I really threw myself into rugby and found that love again.

“I can only speak for myself, but I think it’s important to show gratitude and appreciation. In my life I’ve understood the importance of opportunity, coming from an area in south London, where there is endless talent, but no real opportunity. That was one of my biggest gripes growing up.

“I understood the importance of opportunity and I know that without Eddie, I wouldn’t play for England. He obviously saw something in me and took a punt on me. There’s a lot of gratitude and appreciation, and I thought it was important to have those conversations face-to-face, to look him in the eye and just let him know that I’m very grateful and I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”

As recently as November, Jones was declaring Sinckler as “at his best … the best tighthead in the world”. It was entirely complimentary – coming after England had demolished Japan – but belied the fact that he has not consistently found that form of late. A series of niggling injuries have not helped but while Sinckler was in the form of his life at the 2019 World Cup – turning in a man-of-the-match performance in the quarter-final win over Australia – he has struggled to repeatedly reach those heights since.

Sinckler in action against South Africa in November
Sinckler in action against South Africa in November, a game which ended in a 13-27 defeat and Jones’s departure soon afterwards. Photograph: Jed Leicester/Shutterstock

At the same time, England have struggled at the scrum. In the past 12 months, it has metaphorically, and at times literally, gone backwards – never more so than against South Africa in Jones’s final match in charge. Matt Proudfoot has been moved on with Richard Cockerill tasked with bringing about improvements in the short-term and Sinckler is determined to make England’s scrum a dominant force again, starting with Scotland on Saturday.

“We know the set piece hasn’t been up to standard in the last year,” adds Sinckler. “A lot of it is perception. But as we all know, perception is reality. For instance, in the first scrum of the game against South Africa, we hit, Frans Malherbe turns in and it’s a collapse. If you’re playing any other country, England would probably get a penalty but we were up against South Africa who you know got an unbelievable pack and they get the penalty.

“We need to be a front row and a pack that, when those 50-50s come along, it’s like: ‘Well, there’s no way England gave away that penalty because they’re so dominant.’ Once you paint that picture of dominance, that’s when you do start to get those 50-50 calls because the referee is obviously thinking: ‘These guys are a very dominant pack.’”

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Sinckler is a student of scrummaging. His most valuable asset may be his ball-carrying, or his deft hands at close quarters, but cast your mind back to the 2017 Lions tour of New Zealand and there he was talking technique with an enthusiastic local security guard. He turns 30 in March and believes “deep inside my soul that I’m ready to kick on to the next level now”.

He has an uncanny ability to recall scrums in more detail than some wingers would remember tries and his mind goes back to one in particular that demonstrates just how far he has come since the days before Jones came along. “I guess [the recent scrum issue] has been an ego check, but I don’t think any front-rower I’ve ever met has had a big ego,” he says. “Maybe me when I was 18 years old, coming on the scene, but that kind of got taken out of me very quickly.

“I’ll tell you a funny story actually. I was playing a game against Launceston. I was playing for Richmond and it was one of my first men’s rugby games. I was doing something in the scrum and I’ll never forget this prop – he was big with massive, curly, blond hair. He was like: ‘You do that again, I’m gonna knock you out.’ I was like: ‘What are you talking about?’ Then I did it again in the second scrum and he said: ‘I’m telling you – it’s your last warning.’ The third scrum, I did it, he got up and absolutely hammered me in my face, I dropped, it broke my nose and there was blood everywhere. Did I do it again? No, I didn’t! That was it knocked out of me!”