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Sacking Eddie Jones: A Gamble Worth Taking?

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Published on 7 Dec 2022 9:19 am (UK Time)

Was it Expected? Ultimately, yes. Is it a gamble? Arguably, yes. Eddie Jones has finally succumbed, impaled by the sword of the RFU review after a disappointing autumn where results have sagged, and the baggage has become too much. Jones departs boasting the highest win percentage of any England coach, even greater than one of his most vocal detractors and old adversary Sir Clive Woodward. The RFU has followed the suit of their Welsh counterparts, who dismissed Wayne Pivac yesterday- in rolling the dice with just under a year to go until the World Cup. However, Wales had a safety-net planned; Pivac’s predecessor Wayne Gatland, a man synonymous with Welsh rugby, an adopted son returning home. Meanwhile, England has announced that Richard Cockerill will act as interim coach, with Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick tipped as the full-time replacement.

Undoubtedly, Jones has presided over a challenging year for England. A series win in Australia sandwiched a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations and an autumn campaign plagued with ill-discipline, resulting in a singular win against Tonga. The South Africa game was the final nail in Eddie’s coffin; they were dominated at the set piece, strangled on the gain line, and conceded a turnover try to an electric winger. Seem familiar? There were disturbing parallels to their devastating defeat in Yokohama three years previously, and you couldn’t help but feel that England have gone backwards since finishing runners up in 2019.

But England had been here before under Jones. In 2018, England finished fifth in the Six Nations and suffered five straight defeats. There was some quiet clamouring then, dissenting voices who were hushed when England dismantled New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final a year later, the RFU vindicated for sticking by their man. Jones’s pedigree at World Cups is undeniable; he is a meticulous planner with a supreme ability to coax the best out of his side on the biggest stage. While Joe Schmidt’s much-heralded Irish side crashed in 2019, Eddie’s England peaked at the right time, hitting top gear until the wheels sadly came off against South Africa.

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Jones took the reigns of an England side that was reeling, ignominiously dumped out of their own World Cup at the group stages. Jones added snarl to the English side, employing the previously wayward Dylan Hartley as his captain and rejuvenating James Haskell, a player mainly confined to the periphery by Stuart Lancaster. Jones’s appointment was a bold move by the RFU; he didn’t fit their usual mould; with a reputation for a sharp tongue that had often been directed critically at English rugby, he was a stark contrast to his predecessor, the straight-laced media-friendly Lancaster.

The rewards were instantaneous; Jones led England to their first Grand Slam since 2003, followed by a series whitewash of Australia, harnassing good-old English traditional strengths; a powerful set-piece and an aggressive defence. England went on a record-breaking 17-match winning run under Jones, who suffered just one defeat in his first 25 tests, as England won back-to-back Six Nations and provided the bulk of Warren Gatland’s 2017 Lions squad.

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Arguably, Jones was unlucky not to lead the Lions on their tour of South Africa in 2021, yet, Jones is often defined beyond the boundaries of his side’s record on the pitch. He was rebuked earlier this year by the RFU for his comments on the English game’s reliance on the private school system, describing them as producing ‘closeted players’ lacking in resolve and leadership. While just last year, Jones was swimming in increasingly familiar hot water after some ill-advised comments about Tennis star Emma Raducanu. Jones’s remarks have become more foot-in-mouth than tongue-in-cheek towards the end of his England reign.

Jones has also proved divisive with his players, lauded by the likes of Chris Robshaw for his man-management skills and attention to detail, criticised by others for being overly intense and draining, creating an environment of fear and striking down those who questioned his authority. Jones’s ability as a high-performance coach is largely undisputed, yet at what cost does his pursuit of excellence come? England’s backroom staff has resembled a revolving door under Jones, posing questions about the environment he creates.

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There has been criticism of Jones’s selection at times, too, with players dipping in and out of favour; a whopping 112 players played under Jones, with 14 making just one appearance before being discarded. In fairness to Jones, the volume of players could be argued to demonstrate the brutal nature of modern rugby, with high injury rates and packed calendars, while reflecting the large pool of professional players Jones had at his disposal. Despite these large numbers, certain players may have felt they deserved greater involvement; Sam Simmonds faced three years in the international wilderness after a try-scoring debut, despite consistently lighting up the premiership. Again, in fairness to Jones, he was always transparent about why players weren’t involved, never one to succumb to the media hype train.

So what next for England? Steve Borthwick seems the favourite, with Ronan O’Gara out of the running and Gatland taking the Wales job. Borthwick has been instrumental in Leicester Tigers’ reversal in fortune, from basement lurkers to trophy lifters in the space of a year, while bringing through a raft of exciting youngsters, such as Freddie Steward and Jack van Poortvliet. Borthwick is hugely respected and well-known to the players, having served as forwards coach under Jones for five years. An astute thinker, Borthwick is a largely quiet, unassuming man, meticulous and analytical in his approach both as a player and a coach; he is less likely to provoke the media maelstroms that punctuated Jones’s era. Kiwi Scott Robertson represents another option; he is popular amongst players for his free-spirited approach and excellent man-management skills; some believe he could be the man to ignite the vast potential in England’s backline. However, the Crusaders coach may be holding out for the All Black’s top job, with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) fearful of losing him.

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The RFU will hope that a change will help England emulate their cricketing compatriots, who have thrown off the shackles, seemingly unburdened, and created a winning culture under Brendon McCullum that is enthralling to watch, a worthwhile point considering the largely lifeless atmosphere that haunted Twickenham in the autumn. England sacked Andy Robinson in 2006 and lurched to a World Cup final a year later, while Rassie Erasmus went one better, leading South Africa to glory in 2019 just over a year after assuming the role.

The future looks a little murky for England, but they should look back fondly on Jones’s era, with some memorable results. Life was undoubtedly never dull under Eddie.

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