Eight minutes to play and England are 14 points down against New Zealand. Will Stuart has just scored in the corner and Marcus Smith is standing over the conversion, on the 22, five metres in from the right touchline. It should be Owen Farrell’s kick.
Farrell, who has made every shot at goal so far in the autumn, 15 out of 15 in 200 minutes of Test rugby, is on the pitch, but struggling with a dead leg. So it falls to Smith. He strides up, leans back a touch too much as he swings his boot through and the ball flies wide, passing a couple of feet outside the right upright.
No one really noticed it in all the excitement of those final minutes, but that missed kick ended up the difference. Not that the draw was Smith’s fault, England wouldn’t have scored the three tries they needed to get back into the match without him. But England were a point away, which means, unless you believe the Rugby Football Union would have been brave enough to sack Eddie Jones after his team had beaten New Zealand, they were a gust of wind away from reaching a different decision.
A fortnight earlier, England were two points off beating Argentina. But for a wayward kick here and a wasteful penalty there England would have won three out of four this autumn.
England would still have played badly for long stretches of those same matches, would still have been battered against South Africa in the final game of the autumn, and beaten by Scotland, Ireland, and France in the Six Nations earlier in the year, but it is fair to ask if Jones would have been able to weather the end-of-series review that cost him his job on Tuesday if his team had picked up those three points against New Zealand and Argentina. Which is a desperately thin margin for any coach, let alone one with his track record.
Jones wasn’t let go just because of what happened in those two matches, he has made a series of escalating mistakes, the main one, as he said, that he let his focus drift too far ahead from the next game. He would have got away with rest of it, the flibbertigibbet selections, his ruthless way with his players and assistant coaches, his persistence with an attacking system that wasn’t really working, if the team had been winning in the meantime. But Jones was more caught up worrying about the next World Cup than whether they were ready for their next Test.
His insistence that everything would come good when the team got to France turned the future into a question of faith and the way the team had been playing meant there were too few people left willing to believe. It didn’t help that his ornery manner, and martinet bearing, meant he had made so many enemies along the way. By the end his own boss, the RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney, was one of them. You could hear Jones’s contempt when he told the press that Sweeney will make his decisions “based on what you guys write” after the loss to South Africa.
Sweeney has heard worse, not least at the recent hearings by the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, when he was accused by MPs of being “asleep on the job” and “failure on an epic scale” before being told he ought to “looking at his own position”. Apparently he decided to look at someone else’s instead. Really, the question isn’t how much confidence English rugby had in Jones so much as in the men who decided to sack him, 10 months out from a tournament for which he has spent the past three years preparing. Because wherever you come down on the coach, there’s no questioning what he has previously achieved in his job.
The RFU, on the other hand, seems oblivious to England’s history. This is a team who, before Jones took over, had not won a grand slam in 13 years, embarrassed themselves with their behaviour off the field in 2011 when they were beaten in the quarter-finals, and who were bundled out of their own tournament after being trounced by Australia in the pool stages in 2015. Jones’s England just about won as many matches as Brian Ashton’s, Martin Johnson’s and Stuart Lancaster’s did between them. Throw in Andy Robinson’s lot, too, and you find that under the four head coaches before Jones took over England won just over half the games they played.
How do you feel about Jones’s 73% now?
It figures that if you were going to sack the most successful coach you’ve had you wouldn’t do it unless you had a clear idea the man you were bringing in to replace him was going to be an improvement. Just like Wales did by firing Wayne Pivac and hiring Warren Gatland. So what is the RFU’s grand plan, exactly? Let’s check our notes. Oh yes, Jones’s own assistant, Richard Cockerill, is taking over while they work it out. There’s an expectation they will bring in Steve Borthwick from Leicester. Borthwick, who spent years working as Jones’s right-hand man and whose sum achievements without him are the Premiership title he won last season.
English rugby’s problems won’t end with Jones going. Anything but. Long after he has gone, and his replacement’s honeymoon is over, they might find that, if anything, Jones has spent years helping cover them up.