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Sunday, October 2, 2022

Sticking with Eddie Jones will leave others to savour champagne moments | Six Nations 2022

Just occasionally in sport the scoreboard becomes a side issue. For everyone in Paris on Saturday night, particularly those from across the Channel, what will really stick in the mind is the overriding post-match mood of genuine Gallic excitement. As France’s euphoric supporters celebrated their team’s deserved grand slam it was hard not to envisage many more champagne moments ahead.

It was also a tantalising amuse bouche for what awaits when France host next year’s World Cup. Gazing into the future is never an exact science but Les Bleus appear to have an impressive number of bases covered. A young team, with rare talents such as Virimi Vakatawa, Charles Ollivon, Matthieu Jalibert and Teddy Thomas striving just to make the wider squad, has the potential to achieve special things and the entire country is uniting proudly behind them.

Formidable is one word for it, particularly with their imported guru Shaun Edwards on hand to keep everyone grounded. Did you know Edwards has now won more grand slams over the past 15 years than England, Scotland, Ireland and Italy combined? Which is another uncomfortable fact for the Rugby Football Union’s grandees to reflect upon as they rake over the lukewarm leftovers of another dispiriting campaign under Eddie Jones.

To say England are on a road to nowhere with Jones in charge is merely to restate the increasingly obvious. To insist otherwise is to be as stubbornly in denial as Jones himself seems. “I’ve never been as excited about this team,” he insisted on Sunday. “I think we’re in a really positive situation.” The only people still buying this low-grade, self-serving fertiliser seem to be certain high-ranking individuals within the RFU whose own judgment is now under scrutiny.

Because, for all Jones’s efforts to deflect England’s shortcomings down to third man and look ahead to this July’s three-Test tour to Australia, the reality is starkly different. Have England noticeably kicked on since losing in Ireland to cement fifth place in last year’s final table? No. In some important areas they have significantly regressed, not least in terms of the confidence they engender among their long-suffering supporters.

The online message boards certainly seem to have rounded on the Jones project and with good reason. Is kicking the ball skywards and determinedly running after it really the best that England can muster in his seventh year at the helm? England were beating France at Twickenham last March and hustling South Africa in November. In this Six Nations they have scored their fewest number of tries since 2013.

In truth France would have scored 40 points on Saturday night had they not butchered at least three clear try-scoring opportunities. Maybe it was nerves but it looked more like overexcitement. Les Bleus knew they had England on French toast and, a couple of dropped balls notwithstanding, looked significantly the better coached side. Once the great Antoine Dupont had carved through to score his side’s decisive third try after 61 minutes there was not even the slightest hint of France losing.

Might a couple of injured Englishmen have helped? Of course. But it is not the players who should be under the spotlight here. How are they meant to produce consistent, cohesive performances when those qualities are so often absent in selection? Why did England drag off Marcus Smith in Scotland when they were ahead? What exactly is English rugby’s identity these days? And is there anyone high up at Twickenham prepared to admit that backing Jones for another World Cup cycle was a fingers-crossed punt that is not working out?

Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones insists he is still excited by the England team despite their dispiriting Six Nations campaign. Photograph: Ashley Western/Colorsport/Shutterstock

As things stand the only areas in which the RFU is currently leading the world are mediocrity and half-baked excuses. Jones seems to have increasingly little empathy with the English public, only a hazy knowledge of talent coming through and a lack of awareness of just how much the Six Nations matters perception-wise. When even Italy emerge from the championship on more of an upward curve than England it really is time to take proper stock. The RFU did not hire the talkative Australian to put the “average” into Dame Edna Everage.

The entire edifice badly needs a fresh set of eyes, capable of seeing not just the crescent but the whole of the moon. If the Twickenham hierarchy cannot hire Edwards or Andy Farrell and other longer-term alternatives are unavailable they could do a lot worse than fly in Warren Gatland – Red Adair in a red rose tracksuit – to apply some sage wisdom to their predicament. Gatland already knows many of England’s leading players well from British & Irish Lions tours and, having coached Wasps in their trophy-winning heyday, would not be parachuting into entirely alien territory.

It would be a costly reshuffle but what is the alternative? To soldier on with a posturing head coach who has lost the faith of virtually everyone in the English game since the 2019 World Cup semi-final? To sit back and watch France and Ireland grow ever stronger and more united while the boos rain down from the Twickenham stands? Doing nothing no longer feels like a viable option.

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At this rate even Australia, having regrouped under Dave Rennie, will fancy beating whatever version of “new England” washes up down under this summer. Always assuming Jones is still in place for the Last Night of the Poms. As well as being brilliant for the world game, France’s renaissance may yet require English rugby to remove its head from the sand.

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