How it unravelled for Eddie Jones with England

How it unravelled for Eddie Jones with England - Reuters/Issei Kato
How it unravelled for Eddie Jones with England - Reuters/Issei Kato

That is that, then. After seven years and 81 Test matches, featuring 59 wins, 20 losses and two draws, and having fielded 112 players, Eddie Jones has parted company with England. This is how his tenure came to an end.

Poor results and clunky attack

Each of these sections is neatly connected to the next and it makes sense to start with the bottom line. Jones leaves after returning just five wins from 12 Tests in 2022. You have to go back 14 years to 2008 for a worse England return.

Losses to Ireland, by 17 points, to France, by 12 points, and to South Africa, by 14 points, paint a picture of a team that is adrift of the world’s elite. Besides the grisly win percentage, England’s inability to score tries has been a huge concern for them.

They finished up with 27 tries from their 12 Tests in 2022. That looks middling even before one considers that 12 came in two heavy victories over Italy and Japan. Across 10 matches against Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, then, England dotted down on 15 occasions.

One caveat is that they have been striving to play differently and to exert pressure with their phase-play. This was the second tactical revamp of the Jones era, after he instilled a kick-heavy template between 2018-2020. England did average more running metres (415 to 300) and fewer kicks from hand (25 to 38) in 2022 compared to an ultra-conservative 2020. However, the attack was never consistent enough to be convincing.

Indeed, even in fleeting moments of fluency, it was not particularly unconventional either. England’s forwards have grouped together in threes close to the ruck and twos in midfield, with two distributors floating around those pods and stacks of back-three players swinging around in deeper layers. France and Ireland set up in a similar way, albeit far more effectively with greater dynamism.

England aimed to earn momentum from incisive set-piece strike-moves, but became stuck far too often thereafter and botched chances because of poor backline cohesion.

An overbearing World Cup focus

Ultimately, yet undeniably, England peaked a week too early at the 2019 World Cup. After an exceptional semi-final performance against New Zealand, their best of the Jones era, they could not oust South Africa to take the trophy.

Scrum penalties, short-range wastefulness and uncertainty in the kicking exchanges proved too much to overcome and the Springboks were good value for a 32-12 victory. Even if the scoreline was slightly harsh, considering England were in touch at just 18-12 behind on the hour-mark, they could have few complaints.

Mark Wilson, Ben Spencer, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Ben Youngs of England look dejected in defeat after the Rugby World Cup 2019 Final between England and South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama on November 02, 2019 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Mark Wilson, Ben Spencer, Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Ben Youngs of England look dejected in defeat after the Rugby World Cup 2019 Final between England and South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama on November 02, 2019 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

In January 2018, on the verge of a poor Six Nations that would signal the start of his first slump as head coach, Jones had signed a contract extension through to 2021. It feels poignant to look back now, but the initial – sensible – plan was for a successor to be announced by the end of 2019-20, “with a view to a smooth transition” over the following season.

As it happened, despite Jones conceding that it would be “hard to kick stones for four years”, a strong tournament in Japan scrubbed out those intentions. As the pandemic took hold, another extension was announced in April 2020. Jones was in for another World Cup. And the quadrennial tournament would continue to frame England’s progress.

Ahead of the 2020 Six Nations, a behind-the-scenes video had captured Owen Farrell appearing to deliver a history lesson to the squad. On a board behind him were detailed the previous finalists and their winning percentages, both over the first year following their defeat in a decider and up until the next World Cup, as well as how they did as defending champions. England evidently adopted a long-term focus immediately.

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As early as the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup, notably following a rather turgid, 24-13 win over Wales in Llanelli, Jones was stressing that he would not focus on attack until the back-end of the cycle. England averaged a massive 38 kicks per game that year. They focussed on territory and defensive spoiling while others, particularly Ireland, reinvented themselves.

Jones won eight of nine Tests in 2020, if you count the extra-time triumph over France. From there, though, came an underwhelming Six Nations. He then sought to draw a line in the sand by heralding the birth of New England for the 2021 autumn. There were three wins to finish 2021, but a grim 2022 – with plenty of old faces reintegrated – followed.

Amid poor results, Jones continually voiced his belief that a plan was in place for 2023. He boasts a strong World Cup record, with a history of dipping prior to those assignments, and would have had a prolonged training camp. Yet supporters grew weary of claims that everything was on track and, on the verge of what turned out to be his last autumn campaign, he expanded on the theory behind holding back World Cup tactics.

Bill Sweeney, who arrived as RFU chief executive in February 2019, and Conor O’Shea, brought in that November, must take some responsibility for granting such a mandate. The RFU conducted a rather benign review into the 2021 Six Nations, which yielded excuses that absolved Jones of any direct criticism. A year on, after a second consecutive Six Nations featuring three losses, a curious press release insisted that all was well. O’Shea and Sweeney spent a media session at Twickenham fudging numbers protectively.

Jones’ philosophising about the danger of “showing too much” – and how all he needed to do was retain the confidence of his players – was tempting fate. England did not show enough for Jones to keep his job because, after two uninspiring years, people lost faith. Many fans viewed his approach as a long-con rather than a coherent strategy.

The boos at Twickenham that followed the hosts’ 27-13 loss to South Africa were significant because they illustrated how alienated that England supporters feel from the way that their team was playing. They will have also spooked RFU decision-makers. England have five home games next year – three in the Six Nations followed by two of their four warm-up fixtures.

Imagine how the animosity could have escalated if Scotland were to win at the same venue on February 4. Crucially, there was a genuine sense that fans would not travel to watch a team coached by Jones. Change was always more likely once the RFU were worried about losing out on money.

Coaching turnover

England’s first backroom revamp after the last World Cup raised eyebrows. Jones acquired Simon Amor from the sevens programme as his attack coach to replace Scott Wisemantel and identified Matt Proudfoot as successor to scrum guru Neal Hatley.

The Chasing the Sun documentary, which charts the Springboks’ successful campaign in 2019, demonstrates one of Proudfoot’s mains strengths as his ability to tap into the South African psyche. With a different nation, that weapon was gone. Prior to another set-piece mauling at the hands of the Springboks last month, a scrummaging expert predicted England’s misery. They simply stated that Proudfoot had not done a good enough job in this area.

Elsewhere, there has been a marked turnover of personnel. Martin Gleeson, a rugby league convert who was only really cutting his teeth with Wasps, took over from Amor midway through 2021. The defence coach role has been a hot potato, too.  John Mitchell began the cycle before leaving and being replaced by Anthony Seibold, who was to be replaced by Brett Hodgson. The latter two came from rugby league as well.

Steve Borthwick left England to join Leicester Tigers in July of 2020, with Alex Codling, Jason Ryles and Ed Robinson all seeing brief stints in various areas, over Zoom and in person. Richard Cockerill was whisked in when he parted company with Edinburgh. On-field incoherence, with England often unable to connect different areas of their game, is unsurprising with a foundation like this. Again, Jones and RFU decision-makers, chiefly Sweeney and O’Shea, have to shoulder some blame.

England Team Announcement Press Conference - Radisson Blu Hotel Bristol, Bristol, Britain - August 15, 2019 England attacking coach Scott Wisemantel during the press conference - Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
England Team Announcement Press Conference - Radisson Blu Hotel Bristol, Bristol, Britain - August 15, 2019 England attacking coach Scott Wisemantel during the press conference - Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

Quirky selection and problem positions

In the inaugural episode of the Telegraph Rugby Podcast, Jones talked about his scouting visits to Premiership matches and how he could not have his viewing experience clouded by conversation, even with a fellow coach. It would follow that, in matters of selection, there is unlikely to have been telling input from Jones’ peers.

That places quirks such as picking Tom Curry at the base of the scrum and reinforcing a pack with three locks squarely at the feet of Jones. The attempt to breed cohesion between a new midfield axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell was an explicit look to the future at the expense of the present.

Rugby Union - International - England v South Africa - Twickenham Stadium, London, Britain - November 26, 2022 England's Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell react - Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers
Rugby Union - International - England v South Africa - Twickenham Stadium, London, Britain - November 26, 2022 England's Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell react - Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Every single England line-up and each squad announcement, regardless of its head coach, will split opinion. The trouble was that some of Jones’ more eye-catching concepts seemed to sacrifice balance and accentuate his misgivings over the Premiership. In the same way that prioritising the World Cup carried an it-will-be-alright-on-the-night tone, Jones clearly viewed the Test arena as completely detached from the domestic scene. And when the ploys did not work, it opened him up for criticism.

Where Ireland and South Africa benefited from promoting talents such as Mack Hansen and Kurt-Lee Arendse, for example, Jones seemed worried about the shortcomings of wings like Adam Radwan or Ollie Hassell-Collins.

He should not be castigated for faults in the production line, particularly given the drastic cuts to the age-grade set-up in 2018, but a failure to expand workable options at tighthead prop, hooker, scrum-half and inside centre has jarred. Then there are the individuals to have been phased out curiously, like Alex Lozowski, Ben Earl, Ollie Lawrence and Joe Marchant.

Mature players console themselves by reflecting on how selection often boils down to the opinions of one person. When those opinions seem entrenched, it must be more difficult to feel accepting.

Muddled messaging

To his credit, Jones generated plenty of column inches for rugby union because he was forthcoming with catchy quotes. In that respect, he should be forgiven for the odd inaccuracy or contradiction. Then again, some soundbites became so grating that they alienated supporters.

Aiming to develop into “the greatest team that the game has ever seen”, was a punchy way to move on from the 2019 World Cup and there have been numerous questionable comments over the years. After the loss to Argentina that began the autumn, he reasonably blamed individual errors. However, he had performed a U-turn within days. Prior to a heavy win over Japan, Jones claimed that the result was his fault and admitted that, perhaps, the long-term focus on 2023 had distracted him.

Indicating that he did not care about the disquiet that echoed around Twickenham following a 27-13 loss to South Africa three weeks later was the final straw for some. And it got even worse. Though Jones was not directly involved, his chief media advisor branding Sweeney as ‘Slippery Bill’ was an episode indicative of a relationship that was severely strained if not broken.

Jones leaves with England unquestionably behind France, Ireland and South Africa. That said, their draw for the 2023 World Cup is generous and they should be confident of reaching a semi-final at least. Then all bets will be off. But they will be without Jones.