Rewind to 3rd October 2015 – English rugby was in disarray as the national side became the first rugby World Cup hosts to be knocked out at the pool stage. Defeats at the hands of Wales and Australia saw English rugby hit an all-time low.
Fast forward to present day – England are thirteen victories from thirteen in 2016 and on a record-equalling 14 win streak having sealed their first Six Nations grand slam since 2003, whilst also making history with a first-ever series victory in Australia.
England Rugby – coached by an Aussie, captained by Kiwi
So what changed?
After the disastrous 2015 World Cup, new management was needed and an under-pressure Ian Ritchie, RFU’s Chief Executive, made the decision to go with experience over nationality. A decision that has saved his bacon.
Out went Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree, and in came Eddie Jones, accompanied with Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick. Shortly after his appointment, Jones dropped a number of core players from the Lancaster era and named the controversial New Zealand born Dylan Hartley as captain.
England had a new look.
England’s first challenge under Jones saw them claim the grand slam with key victories over Wales and Ireland, the two teams who had condemned them to second place in the Lancaster era. The early transformation said something about the mediocrity of the Six Nations, but England were, by some way, the stand-out team in the tournament.
“We’re going to play ‘Bodyline’ rugby.”
Arguably one of English rugby’s greatest achievements in recent times was the thrilling 3-0 series win Down Under.
The first and second tests were two classic, brutal test matches with Paul Gustard’s ‘Wolf Pack’ mentality playing a pivotal role in both. The pressure-based game saw England soak up Australian intensity, coming off the line to hit their opponents hard and then take their chances when they came. With Australia’s electric attacking ability, it was imperative that England stuck to their game plan.
Huge hits coming in from all angles with James Haskell’s monstrous tackle on David Pocock getting a special mention as hit of the series. A few minor tweaks in attack, most notably George Ford replacing Luther Burrell, saw Jones’ England claim the series over the team he once coached to the World Cup final.
Jones was masterful when dealing with the media. From the moment England arrived on Australian soil, Jones completely dominated the news agenda with his on-going verbal joisting with former Randwick team-mate, Michael Cheika.
This resulted in the “demeaning and disrespectful” Australian media focusing the majority of their attention on Jones rather than attacking the England team – the ultimate disguise.
Isn’t it just wonderful to think of an Aussie turning on his own to help the Poms whitewash the Aussies?
What pleased English fans most was the attitude Jones had installed into England team after securing the series in Melbourne with a 23-7 victory. Despite a first-ever series victory in Australia, Jones immediately laid down the gauntlet for his team stating “we came here to win the series 3-0 and that’s what we are going to do”. The scintillating final test in Sydney ended in a 44-40 England victory.
World Class Players
Eddie Jones insists that in order to be a world class player you must be an automatic pick in a World XV. According to Jones, England have none.
Many, including this author, would disagree. The talismanic Billy Vunipola has established himself as the form Number 8 in world rugby, 21 year-old lock Maro Itoje has had an astonishing year, winning every game he has started for over 16 months, and ‘The Iceman’ Owen Farrell has consistently produced the goods both at club and international level.
All three Saracens make a serious claim of being ‘world class’ having all made the IRB World Player of the Year shortlist (England have had only two previous nominees in the past decade). Other players including Ben Youngs, Mako Vunipola, Anthony Watson, George Kruis and George Ford have taken their game to the next level and will be pushing hard for a Lions Jersey.
Competition is the Key to Success
A significant factor behind England’s unbeaten year is that there is competition in almost every position. The depth of English rugby is best highlighted by the World Rugby Under 20 Championship where England have won 3 of the last 4, coming runners up only to New Zealand in 2015.
Stuart Lancaster was able to see that there was serious talent in his squad but it was Jones who was able to use his encyclopaedic knowledge of modern rugby to change the culture of the England team. He lets the players know exactly where they stand and what is expected of them.
Jones even brought in different coaches throughout the year, giving his own staff a gentle reminder they need to keep improving as well.
Jones has a unique ability in the way he can get to people.
Ben Youngs is a prime example, he has got leaner and finally started to fulfil his potential after Jones famously threw a packet of sweets at him. Youngs was a player who a year ago could not keep his starting place.
In the Old Mutual Wealth series, Youngs produced his best England performances to date and was ‘world class’ in the final game of the year against the Aussies. Same could be said for Chris Robshaw who looks like a completely different player without the burden of captaincy.
“Second of November, 8pm Japan time – 1,020 days away.”
The 2019 World Cup final – Jones already knows the time and the place.
This, along with replacing the Kiwi’s as the number one team in the world, is the ultimate goal. The two teams will not face off until 2018 and it will be fascinating to see what happens between now and then.
World rugby is currently in a strange place with very few top class international sides. This will change and competition will improve. The real test for England starts now and Jones has challenged his team to replicate their unbeaten year in 2017.
The Six Nations returns in February and IF England manage to get to Dublin unscathed, they will be looking to break the All Blacks’ run of 18 straight wins and claim back-to-back grand slams.
And IF England do bring home the Webb Ellis cup in 2019, the little man from Tasmania should return home from the Promised Land as Sir Eddie Jones.
– Tom Gillen