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Steady on, Eddie!

By most accounts Dylan Hartley, the Northampton Saints hooker who will turn 30 in March, winner of 66 England caps, is a regular sort of guy to meet – modest, almost quiet, and dedicated to his professional sport. Yesterday he was appointed captain of England for the 2016 Six Nations by new head coach Eddie Jones and it was inevitable that his ‘baggage’ (his disciplinary record, involving as it does a total of 54 weeks of his career ‘lost’ due to a series of suspensions for a variety of misdemeanours committed over the years) would get a pretty widespread airing as the media covered this news story.

I’d go a tad further than that. The guiding theme of yesterday’s media reports almost amounted to ‘Bad Boy Dylan Appointed England Skipper’, with pundits and ex-player queuing up to join either the ‘Eddie is taking a big risk’ or, alternatively, the ‘Dylan will give us just the ‘edge’ we need’ camps. The bottom line is that all of this is just media spin and froth – the world of 24/7 coverage needs constant ‘new’ stories to maintain interest and, if it’s not Lord Coe’s woes at IAAF, the latest from tennis’s Australian Open and/or the Centurion cricket Test Match, it may as well be ‘Potential Liability takes the on-pitch helm at Twickenham’.

It’s a shorthand way of grabbing the public’s attention or reminding them of who is being referred to. Just as, in soccer, whenever Fleet Street’s finest used to – or does – do a story on Paul Gascoigne, it habitually added the tags ‘wife beater’ and/or ‘drunkard’ and if it was one on Stan Bowles, for example, it was in the context of his penchant for gambling.

Today I’m more interested in the head coach’s side of things when it comes to picking a skipper, or indeed choosing his strategy and tactics.

jonesIn England Rugby’s case, Eddie Jones – styled for our ‘easy’ consumption as the no-nonsense, ‘tell it like it is’, reputation-disregarder, fierce taskmaster, maverick, ‘challenging’, Aussie iconoclast – has had it relatively easy thus far.

As a rugby coach he’s already been there, done it, and got the T-shirt at every level of the game. He’d masterminded Japan’s success at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, including the sensational last-minute victory over South Africa.

Another big plus was that he wasn’t Stuart Lancaster who, though a hard-working okay bloke with his heart in the right place, seemed to be doing all his selections and coaching ‘by numbers’ – that is to say, direct from the coaching manuals he’d been reading … or possibly direct from the mouth of his junior, but infinitely stronger character, former Rugby League legend Andy Farrell.

Finally, Eddie gives good copy, which always gets the journos on his side. Put simply, if you ask him a straight question, he gives a straight answer. Plus – if things are otherwise a bit average or dull, he’s quite capable of throwing in a left-field view on any aspect of his job and he doesn’t seem to mind if some get offended. Those who have played or worked for him emerge from the shadows to testify to his workaholic tendencies and bluntness, warning the newly-gathered England squad that Eddie will soon have them working harder than ever before.

All this sets up Eddie nicely, of course. Having been painted in advance as a mixture of Genghis Khan and Godzilla, ‘the boys’ who arrived in camp on Sunday night will have been anxious, on their toes and prepared for the worst. If Eddie then walks in and presents himself as a relaxed, easy-going pussycat – he’s got a win-win. The players will either be relieved (thinking “Hey, he’s not as bad as everyone was saying”) or even more wary (“Jeez, he’s deliberately being nice in order to throw us off-guard … he’s bound to be completely different tomorrow”).

It seems to me that, in all sports, the role of manager or head coach – like that of a politician – is a question of balancing his or her beliefs and principles against the practical necessities of ‘going with the flow’ as the inevitable tsunami of unexpected events and crises come piling in.

woodwardLet me take the example of Eddie Jones’ predecessor Sir Clive Woodward. An intelligent man and full of ideas. he became England coach in 1997 promising England fans a feast of running, attacking rugby and a clean break with their national team’s stodgy, albeit reasonably successful, past.

His first two years in the job were unspectacular. He began by picking ‘New Age’ players in a variety of positions and trying to play an expansive game, but it wasn’t successful. His newly-chosen captain Lawrence Dallaglio was soon caught in a Sunday Tabloid ‘drugs’ sting and had to be replaced by Martin Johnson. England’s performance at the 1999 Rugby World Cup almost cost Woodward his job – it was almost on a par with the 2015 disaster that immediately did for Stuart Lancaster.

However, he was kept on. He then abandoned the ‘cavalier’ approach and went for out-and-out pragmatism. He was lucky that – by chance – a group of England players had come together at a point in time, Woodward’s time, that had the potential to go all the way to the next RWC Cup Final. If a few things fell into place, if they got some momentum behind them, if they played up to their full potential and if the fixtures (and Lady Luck) went their way.

Being perhaps a little unfair to him – not that this is something I’ve worried about particularly – besides his players, Woodward became the chief beneficiary. He presided over all of this. He let Johnson and the senior players ‘do their thing’ tactically – in effect he became ‘chief enabler’ – plus, along the way, shielding the players from the fans and, even more importantly, the RFU ‘suits’.

He ‘went with the flow, whilst giving the impression that it was all of his personal design and execution when (to a large extent) it was actually day-to-day (sometimes ‘after the event’) adoption of an on-the-hoof ‘script of explanation’ in reaction to whatever was happening.

johnsonWhether my theory is the truth or not, what is undeniable is that the proof was in the pudding – England won the 2003 RWC, defeating the host nation Australia (coached by Eddie Jones, of course).

And Woodward deserves huge praise for his association with that epic conclusion to the voyage.

Fast-forward to January 2016 and Eddie Jones again.

Are there parallels emerging consistent with the Woodward experience? Possibly.

Jones impressed everyone, including me, at his press conference announcing his initial Six Nations squad. Asked about the captaincy, he deflected speculation that he favoured Dylan Hartley (despite Hartley not having played much and struggling to recover from a concussion episode of seven or eight weeks previously) by saying bluntly [this is the gist]: “Guys, we’ve just announced the 30-plus man initial squad. What I can say is this. The captain to be then has to make the cut to the 23-man match day squad. Then he’s got to make the starting XV. When we’ve got that far, only then will I even start to think about picking the captain …”

Sounded good, didn’t it?

But yesterday he picked Dylan Hartley as captain. As I said, Hartley missed the RWC in the autumn and hasn’t played much this season yet. Even though he’s been fit from early December, he’s had trouble making the Northampton Saints starting XV because his stand-in (Mike Hayward) has been playing so well that he’s currently the Saints’ first choice, ahead of Hartley.

So how does England head coach Jones justify picking Hartley as his skipper when (1) Hartley isn’t even his club’s first choice hooker at the moment; and (2) the other two hookers in the England squad – Jamie George of Saracens and Luke Cowan-Dickie of Exeter Chiefs, coming back from a broken thumb – are very highly regarded.

George in particular has been the ‘form’ hooker in the Premiership for the past two seasons and should really have been playing in England’s RWC team instead of Tom Youngs (who hasn’t even made Eddie Jones’ new England squad).

Jones simply intimated that, in his view, there is club-match fit and there is international fit. There are certain players that are proven international class – Hartley is one – and he (Jones) is content to ignore current form in order to include Hartley in his squad and make him captain.

So, what we’re saying then is that Jones has abandoned his original thrust on the captaincy (i.e. that the chosen one had first to be in the starting XV on merit). He wanted to make a statement about ‘cutting ties with the past’ – this is why he was never going to retain Stuart Lancaster’s choice Chris Robshaw as captain – and create a bit of a stir in the process.

He’s achieved it.

My expectation is that this is just the first example of Jones dropping his principles and going the pragmatic route – a la Woodward – during what is about to be his four-year reign as England head coach. I very much doubt it will be the last. Forget any desire to see England ‘throwing the ball about’ in the style that Japan did at the RWC – if Eddie manages to win the 2016 Six Nations by a single point, even by grinding it out with dour forward-dominated tactics, I’m sure he’ll take it …  because that’s what head coaches do.

 

 

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