Jones changing England through evolution, not revolution
LONDON: The most remarkable aspect of the turnaround in England’s fortunes over the last 12 months is that on the surface so little seems to have changed.
Eddie Jones inherited a squad shorn of confidence after being dumped out of their own World Cup in the group stage but the Australian did not make drastic personnel changes and the bulk of the team that Stuart Lancaster built remains in place.
Somehow, though, Jones has remoulded that group into a team that won every game of the year – 13 of them. It is a sequence that brought England’s first grand slam since 2003, a hugely impressive 3-0 series win in Australia and a clean sweep of autumn victories over South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and Australia.
Tagged on to their World Cup win over Uruguay it takes England’s winning run to 14 – matching the previous best set under Clive Woodward in 2002/03.
Should they continue the streak by winning the first four games of the Six Nations they will go into a last day clash with Ireland seeking a grand slam and with the chance to set a new Tier One record of 19 wins in a row.
New Zealand hold the record of 18, ended by their defeat to Ireland last month.
Not only have England been winning games, they have been winning them playing a combination of smart, efficient and often entertaining rugby – averaging more than three tries a game under Jones’ leadership and showing the sort of ball handling skills that for so long seemed beyond them.
Although Jones, who coached Japan to their upset victory over South Africa at the World Cup, has changed the backroom staff and undoubtedly introduced numerous tactical and technical tweaks that have improved England as a unit, his most important contribution seems to have been psychological.
Players talk now of feeling far more empowered than under Lancaster, when so much of the team’s play was orchestrated from the sidelines.
On Saturday they were in disarray – “scatty” according to Jones – in an opening 20 minutes totally dominated by Australia.
However, they regrouped and took charge in a similarly one-sided second half to run out deserved 37-21 winners.
Jones has also boosted their confidence by instilling belief. A few eyebrows were raised after Jones’ first game in charge against Scotland when he suggested Billy Vunipola could become the best number eight in the world.
Six months on and he is right up there knocking on the door of New Zealand’s Kieran Read and is one of three vice-captains.
Owen Farrell and Mike Brown also have back-up roles to Dylan Hartley, who seems to have finally overcome a career-defining tendency for indiscipline after being installed as Jones’ captain.
Jones removed the captaincy from Chris Robshaw, a player he criticised heavily during the World Cup. However, having seen the selfless Harlequins man close up, Jones had no hesitation in keeping him in the team, albeit switched from open-side to blindside.
Jones famously tossed a bag of sweets to Ben Youngs, telling the scrumhalf he was too fat. On Saturday Jones said he had “played himself into a Lions jersey.”
All over the team England players are improving and the squad depth is growing.
Jones, who was on the losing side as Australia coach when England won the 2003 World Cup final, is delighted with the progress but says the current crop have a long way to go to match that led by Martin Johnson.
“The 2003 side were a much better side than we are at the moment,” he said after Saturday’s win.
“They could win in any number of ways. They had a more consistent scrum and lineout than we do – but the players are challenging themselves to keep improving.
“At the moment I’d still say there isn’t one player who would be an automatic choice in a world team, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)