Aside from the unexpected ease of victory for Wales against Scotland in the opening match (and the last-second nature of Ireland’s win in Paris), the first two rounds of this year’s Six Nations have largely occurred as expected. But one thing has caught the eye: England’s Eddie Jones seems far from happy. His side are two from two, and still on for a record-breaking third consecutive championship title (and possibly a second Grand Slam in three years). His side’s win against Warren Gatland’s Welsh team not only extended their unbeaten home record to fifteen games but was a feather in the cap for Jones in the battle of rugby’s two ‘big mouths’ – his questioning of Rhys Patchell’s ability to ‘handle the pressure’ entirely vindicated at full-time. And yet, the England coach’s post match interviews and remarks were sniping, snarling and downright shirty. Even after the heat of battle, Jones still had a chip on his shoulder claiming the Welsh had been ‘cocky’ before the game, while repeatedly getting drawn into the debate over Gareth Anscombe’s TMO-disallowed try – something that he could have easily avoided given that England had claimed the all important win.
So the question has to be asked: why is Eddie Jones so angry?
Before we go on, I should state we’re ignoring Jones’ pre-match comments in all of this: Patchell, ‘bottle’ and all. Such sideshows are part and parcel of the game nowadays, and the international rugby roster has plenty of practitioners of this darker art: the aforementioned Gatland, Steve Hansen, Michael Cheika to name but three. As such, to call out England’s top man for his comments would be hypocritical (regardless of whether they “lacked class” or not).
No, the usual pattern of the week leading up to crucial test matches goes something like this: members of the opposing coaching teams host several media junkets, one or two of them say something provocative (either intentionally or otherwise), TV and the printed press raise the noise, anticipation builds to a fever pitch, game starts, game ends, life moves on. Crucially, and to use Eddie Jones’ own phrase that he’s been repeating this last week, “at full-time, there’s no side”. Which is what makes Jones’ attacks following the Wales game even more surprising. He’s called out the media for perceived criticism of Mike Brown, the Wales team and management itself, even World Rugby. This past week he’s been practically Trumpian in the frequency of his rants and lashings-out.
What’s behind this? Is it the Welsh whingeing over that TMO incident? Is it that he feels his team are getting a rough deal in the press? Is he falling out of love with the idea of being England coach altogether?
Red Rugby does not think it’s any of the reasons above. Our take is that Jones is becoming inpatient with his charges and their progress. The Australian took over a decent squad from the hapless Stuart Lancaster and, with an injection of nastiness and grit, turned them into a Grand Slam-winning outfit within six months. By the end of his first year, his side were unbeaten in 14 games, equaling the previous English record. They won four further matches after that to equal the world record run of 18 unbeaten games, before they were finally toppled over by Ireland. Despite this, they still won the tournament and were, by then, firmly second in the World Rugby rankings.
But Eddie Jones is not here to win Six Nations Championships or Grand Slams; he’s here to win the World Cup and he’ll be acutely aware of two things: 1) England’s progress has stalled since that unbeaten year of 2016 and 2) time is running out before the biggest tests arrive, beginning in November (with that much anticipated match versus the all-conquering Kiwis) and culminating in six era-defining weeks in Japan (the first of which is just 19 months away).
A few may balk at that characterisation: one of England as a team stuck in development, especially when they continue to win. But things weren’t all that different four years ago when what would turn out to be a disastrous home World Cup for England was as close as RWC2019 is now. Back then, England were building nicely under Lancaster: a new generation of players like Owen Farrell and Chris Robshaw were coming to the fore, and a win against world champions New Zealand had boosted confidence that the English could be onto something. And then it all fell apart. Eddie Jones is aware of this and, although his team are markedly better than the one Lancaster built following RWC2011 (and with the trophies to prove it), he’ll know his side need to go up a gear or two if they are to lift the Webb Ellis in Yokohama.
What we’ve seen in the last week or two is Eddie Jones unable to mask his frustration: a frustration that, at this stage in his project plan, his team are unable to comfortably beat a Wales side shorn of nine British and Irish Lions; a frustration that his side still feel the effect of one or two injuries (Billy Vunipola etc.) in a way that New Zealand simply would not; a frustration that England aren’t as good as he would hope them to be.
That’s not to say England are not a good side. To argue otherwise would be churlish. And in Owen Farrell they have a genuine game-changer the likes of which are incredibly rare. Regardless, Jones remains unhappy. However, and here’s the rub for supporters of all other nations, this should give England fans great heart. The fact that Eddie Jones is so frustrated, so angry and so bloody-minded can only be good for the team’s development. His relentless, restfulness nature could well be what propels this team from good to great.
In the meantime, someone give him a cuddle for crying out loud.