Thursday 14th January 2016
EDDIE JONES has realised all his opportunities in one fell swoop and taken a machete to the England Rugby squad to almost the full capacity he was allowed in his first selection as Head Coach.
The RFU Elite Player Squad Agreement only allows Jones to make 11 changes to the team before his first test against Scotland, and so he has, with nine players gone from the Rugby World Cup squad, (10 if you count Sam Burgess) and seven uncapped players have entered the fray, much to the chagrin of Premiership coaches and players alike.
Jones is determined that this is a new beginning for England Rugby, to firmly put the World Cup in a distant memory and to create a winning English rugby team.
“I have no doubt that in this current squad of 33 there are four or five players who if they change their mindset and they change their attitude, they can become world class players. If we get four or five world class players - and I'm not going to name them - then we can be the dominant team in the world. That's what it takes,” extolled a determined Eddie Jones.
“Why haven't England been dominant since 2003? Because they haven't had those players. If you go back to 2003 when I was coaching against Clive, you had Greenwood at centre, Wilkinson at 10, Dallaglio at eight, Hill at six, Johnson at five. They were guys who have changed games of rugby and England haven't had those players.
“Our job is to develop those players and if we do that the side will come through. There are enough good, hardworking players here, but to be dominant a team in the world you've got to be better than good and hard working. You have to want to do that bit extra, seek that extra bit of advice, you have to look at doing things differently. You've got to be desperate and hungry for success.”
Jones is keeping quiet on his selection for captaincy for now, but has said whoever is named will be only for the Six Nations whilst he is testing the waters: “Your captain's got to be your best player. He's got to be one of the first selected in the team, and then he's got to lead by example. He needs to set standards for the team in terms of how we operate off the field, how we operate on the field, and he's got to be a conduit between the coaching staff and the players.
“We've got 33 players. That goes down to 23 players, that goes down to 15 players. When we've got 15 players, then we'll worry about the captain.”
Chris Robshaw is not out of the running, any more than Dylan Hartley is in, but as Jones’ predecessor used to say, the previous captain has some credit in the bank as far as his play is impressing the new coach, “Chris Robshaw has been doing exceedingly well at 6, maybe because he's got half a number off his back! He's been playing brilliantly.”
In his fascinating selection, Jones has spent most of his time since arriving in England watching his potential squad, “Since I started the job on December 4 I have watched every game played in England and every one in Europe – with the exception of some of the Challenge Cup games – so I’ve seen a lot of rugby.
“I’ve also got a lot of contacts in England. I’ve played here, I’ve coached here and I speak to a lot of people about what they think. You get a general view about a player and then if enough people say the same thing then you are hitting on something.
“There’s no perfect solution but I’m happy with squad and really excited by it.”
Jones admits, like many an England fan looking at the new squad, he was not au fait with all the talent he had at his disposal. Paul Hill, for example, “I didn't know him from a bar of soap when I started. He's just a young guy with oodles of potential. He scrummages well and plays like a loose head. He wants to carry and has come from nowhere. He's selected himself.”
Jack Clifford has also impressed as another soapy candidate, “It has been a revelation watching him play. You go and watch Harlequins and you don't need to know anything about rugby to know he's a good player.”
The inclusion of RFU Chairman and England Rugby legend, Bill Beaumont’s youngest son Josh, has no doubt thrilled the proud father who captained both England and the British Lions back in his day. But the versatile No8, who can also play at lock, has attracted attention by what he does on the paddock. “He’s got a good head on him, understands the game, does the right things and has got a point of difference that he’s a good ball-carrier.”
There are some obstacles in the way still with the high number of casualties of late, but an injured Jonny May gives rise to the return of Chris Ashton, “He’s mad as a cut snake. He plays with a lot of energy, he’s emotional and he’s a real winner to me. He scores tries. Everyone says how hard he’s worked on his defence and high ball catching. He’s definitely improved in those areas from what I saw 12 months ago. He can give us an edge there and he’s a big physical guy when he carries.”
With Manu Tuilagi finally back in the game after his enforced injury break of 15 long and tedious months, the Samoan Englishman is already pencilled in as a centrepiece, “He can play both (10 and 12) but I think when he’s fit, he can be a Ma’a Nonu-type player. He’s got an exceptional skill-base and exceptional feet. He’s got the ability to carry the ball through the line, he’s got a short passing game, he can develop a kicking game too.
“I’m clear in my mind what I sort of player I want in each of those positions. I want a 12 who can take the ball through the line. A 12’s primary job is to straighten the attack; it was 30 years ago, it was 10 years ago and it still is now.
“The 13 is like your backs version of a No8 who can do a bit of everything; he can link, he can put the ball behind them and he’s a good communicator. We’ve got two guys with exceptional feet in Joseph and Daly, and they’re not bad readers of the game.
“The 10 has got to be the bus driver and the servant. He has to know which route to take and know what the team needs to have, and we’ve got two guys who can do that in George and Owen. We’re reasonably well set up. Obviously Manu would be a key player for us at 12, but we’ve got to deal with what we can deal with now.”
Jones already has short and long term plans in place for his back row too, manufacturing an out and out seven immediately, looking at Haskell, Clifford and Kvesic. But he has his eye on the longer term solution already, “There are a couple of younger guys I've seen, but I'm not going to give you their names. They're potentially real numbers seven, red hot over the ball.”
There is no less passion from the new defence and forwards coaches, Paul ‘The Wolfpack’ Gustard and Steve Borthwick, both of whom have coached alongside Eddie Jones at Saracens and Japan respectively.
“Most things that are enjoyable you have to work hard at. That’s the nature of it. It is working harder than the opposition,” says Gustard, a man who has tasted success on the field with four Premiership wins at Leicester Tigers, and off it as Saracens coach where the team has defensively become almost unbeatable in recent years, reached the final of the Heineken Cup, and are champions of the LV= Cup and Aviva Premiership.
“We have got some unbelievably good players. Two unbelievable coaches sitting right here in front of you. If we can get our message across as best we can, of course it is going to be enjoyable. They are playing for their country. They can have fun within. The foundation of getting better means that you have to apply yourself in some capacity. Those are willing to take themselves further will make the most of that talent. And those that don’t, unfortunately won’t.”
On how to rebuild the England pack, the former England captain who drove the Brave Blossoms to their historic RWC win over South Africa beside Eddie Jones, is clear in what has to be done. “We have good experienced players in this forward pack and guys who have come through with huge potential, which is really exciting,” says Borthwick.
“We need a forward pack that is very strong at the set piece, when we have the ball we go forward and wins the collision both in attack and defence. The forwards are going to do that. That is a single methodology and we have some top quality players involved in that. The challenge is always how to make them better.”
There is no shortage of a solid plan of action for the new England coaches, who move into Pennyhill Park ready for the influx of 33 hopefuls on the night of Sunday 24th January. The players will no doubt be weary after a fortnight of European club action, but it is no different for five other nations, all with the eye on the prize.
What wonderment the Geordie defence coach, known as Gussy in rugby circles, will impose on his boys is yet to be seen. The reputation that precedes him is one of bringing wild animals into camp to set the mood; Saracens players have been subjected to wolves and snakes in the past. He assures the press the only feral creature he has permission to bring into camp is his ex-wife(!)
Meanwhile the forwards coach is positive there will be no shortage of team bonding on the horizon, which England appeared to lack in its most recent guise. But with such little time, he is not sure plans are afoot for any Saracens-style Oktoberfest, NYC or Verbier snow-sporting trips with just a few short training sessions from meeting up to the jolly-jaunt to Murrayfield.
“Without question we need a group that get to know each other,” said Borthwick. “I don’t know what Eddie’s got planned, I’m not exactly sure, but certainly developing the group and making the bond stronger, and develop friendships within it is an important part.”
Under the new regime, England can expect to work harder, faster, smarter, and play just as hard. But Jones has only one thing on his mind as his opening gambit, to beat Scotland.
“You can't get too ahead of yourself when you are fourth in Europe. We've just got to take each game by itself. If we play good rugby, we'll win the Championship; if we don't play good rugby we won't win the Championship. We've got seven training sessions to get them ready for the first game. There's not going to be some radical new-age rugby come out of seven training sessions. We've got to build the side slowly and surely to ensure they keep improving. At the end of the Championship, what we'd like to see is a team that's a vast improvement from the team at the start of the Championship. If we get that, we are going to have a good result.
“It's all about winning. Lovely rugby, you don't come third - don't kid yourself. No one plays lovely rugby and comes third.”