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Setting off down the runway

England rugby head coach Eddie Jones announced his training squad to go into camp between 17th and 19th May at Brighton College – see a media report here – THE GUARDIAN

Jones-watching has become a fashionable pastime amongst rugby fans ever since the RFU – bending to public opinion, as it slavishly tends to do – hired him because he was/is the complete antithesis of Stuart Lancaster [or ‘Bomber’ as some nicknamed him] in style and outlook as much as his enviable ‘been there, done it’ track record.

Most rugby pundits seem to hold a contradictory view of the Stuart Lancaster regime. Even while he was in his England pomp they lined up to take their turn at lamblasting him for his lack of elite club coaching experience and instead being promoted within from the RFU’s own ranks after proving a ‘safe pair of hands’ in young player development; for being more sergeant-major class than proper office material; and – though lacking nothing in terms of good intentions and workaholic application – for ‘doing it by numbers’ instead of instinctively.

Once the axe had fallen, however, it was remarkable how even some of his harshest critics rowed back on their damning criticism.

The consensus rapidly became that Lancaster was a likable, thoroughly decent, man who during his tenure had done much to restore England pride in the shirt, traditions, integrity and rugby culture. He had brought in under him a solid and respected set of specialist coaches [Graham Roundtree, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt], left them to ‘do their thing’ and had presided over the outcome, including selection decisions, rather as the ‘first amongst equals’ rather than a dictator driving things forward from the top of the pyramid. He may have been in the wrong job, but every man jack of the pundit brigade wished him well in his quest to find another elite coaching position somewhere in world rugby.

For me the brutal truth lies in the ‘non-commissioned officer’ verdict outlined above because – in almost organisation at every level of every walk of life – Number 2s very rarely make a fist of a promotion to a Number 1 position. They’ve been appointed as a Number 2 for a reason. They’re less an inspirational visionary than someone whose essential attribute is their reliability to carry out someone else’ instructions to the letter.

bomberThere’s another danger in promoting an ‘NCO’-type like Stuart Lancaster to a chief executive role. They sometimes bring in others with impressive personalities and CVs to do the day-to-day work – partly in the hope or expectation that their reputation will be enhanced (“Phew – Stuart Lancaster must be a tough old hombre because look who he’s dared to employ under him!”) – but this ruse rarely works out and it certainly didn’t in Lancaster’s case.

Andy Farrell, the former rugby league international and Saracens and England player and then coach, is an all-time rugby great – though he switched codes to union at least five years too late – and is known to have a personality as large and strong as Mount Rushmore.

In the fall-out in the wake of England’s Rugby World Cup debacle, people closed ranks and denied it, but out in the real rugby world everyone knew that Lancaster was unable to stand up to Farrell and that the latter dominated the England strategies and selections, including the disastrous promotion of Sam Burgess into the England playing squad as a centre threequarter virtually from nowhere. The warning signs on this ruse were there throughout. For all his efforts, Burgess never displayed more than passing evidence of coming to terms with the intricacies of the game and it certainly didn’t help that his club disagreed with Farrell as to his best position and played him as a flanker whenever not ordered by England to pick him in midfield.

Now six months into the Eddie Jones regime and the time has come for his second big test – next month’s tour of Australia. He passed the first (the 2016 Six Nations) with flying colours largely by (1) not being Stuart Lancaster, and (2) the general standard of play in the tournament being less than it might have been.

Jones has picked eight uncapped players for this training camp and I have to be honest, I had never previously heard of one of them – Sale’s 21 year-old full back Mike Haley – which just goes to show something.

With the issue of player burn-out now coming to the fore, it will be interesting to see just which players Jones will pick for the Australian trip with its inevitable conditions of rock-hard pitches and constant heat. My hunch is that not many previously uncapped players will make the cut, so this training camp will be more a case of looking at emerging talent rather than considering the fine detail of those on the edge of making the touring squad.

Jones had also picked the Marmite-figure of Cipriani. Personally, although I saw plenty of him (and rated him highly) as a teenager, his errant and oddball behaviour then repelled me and blighted his career. Having long ago fallen into the non-believing camp, I cannot see the point of his ‘recall’. There are kids coming through with more potential than he has left in his locker.

It will be interesting to see how England go on their Australian adventure. The one thing that gives me hope and positive inspiration is that Eddie Jones is known for his streetwiseness. He doesn’t care a fig for reputation and believes only the evidence of his own eyes. Plus he’s already given plenty of signals that he goes for ‘all-round footballers’ rather than specialists who only do their own job. He wants players who can play.


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About Sandra McDonnell

As an Englishwoman married to a Scot, Sandra experiences some tension at home during Six Nations tournaments. Her enthusiasm for rugby was acquired through early visits to Fylde club matches with her father and her proud boast is that she has missed only two England home games at Twickenham since 1995. Sandra has three grown-up children, none of whom follow rugby. More Posts