England and Jones await next chapter in rugby’s coaching soap opera

Gatland’s dramatic return to Wales only increases the pressure on the RFU to stick or twist

There are long-established soap operas with fewer plot strands than international rugby coaching right now.

Not since EastEnders’ Dirty Den returned to Walford in 2003 has there been a prime-time comeback to match Warren Gatland’s return as head coach of Wales. And then we have the rolling “Will they, won’t they?” saga involving Eddie Jones and the Rugby Football Union, the most hotly debated Australian relationship in these parts since Kylie first clapped eyes on Jason.

How ironic, too, that on the very same day the RFU’s anonymous panel of experts met to discuss whether to remain just good friends with their old mate Eddie, the Welsh Rugby Union opted to go back to the future by rehiring their old southern hemisphere guv’nor for one last job.

Can you revolutionise a national team’s prospects so close to a World Cup? One way or another, we are about to find out.


The swooping return of the “Gatman” in place of the jettisoned Wayne Pivac also heaps further pressure on Twickenham’s guardians.

One of the more enticing scenarios doing the rounds – and there have been some wacky ones – was the idea of Gatland assisting England in a temporary “godfather” role, with Steve Borthwick riding shotgun before assuming the top job after the next World Cup. Now that cunning wheeze is just another screwed-up sheet of paper among many littering the office floor of Bill Sweeney, the RFU’s chief executive.

There is also the small matter of the decisiveness with which Wales have reacted to their disappointing calendar year. The cash-strapped union will have had to dig deep to pay off Pivac and reactivate Gatland but once it was decided that was the way to go the deed has been swiftly done.

Back in Twickenham, from an external perspective, there has been more than a hint of paralysis by analysis, both on and off the field.

One also wonders if anyone in the RFU had time to cast their eyes up to the television screens to study the final day of the Rawalpindi Test. If so they would have seen precisely what is suddenly possible when a team, to borrow from Psalm 121, is encouraged to lift up its eyes unto the hills.

It was not just that England’s cricketers won an exciting Test against the odds. It was the history-making fashion in which they did it and their readiness to risk everything to make it happen.

Think back to the same players’ drooping body language before Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes took over. Now rewind to Twickenham during and immediately after last month’s South Africa defeat and ask yourself whether a touch of “Bazball” might be just what the English rugby doctor ordered. Different sports, of course, but a positive attitude can make a massive difference.

The mind also spools back to the day in Brisbane in July when we asked Jones what he thought about the so-called ‘Baz Ball’ phenomenon.

“That can sometimes happen with a new coach,” he replied, clearly unimpressed by the unspoken implication.

Few love their cricket more than Jones but, in his seventh year with England, he was not about to throw all his intricate World Cup preparation up in the air for the sake of it. When England won that Wallaby series from 1-0 down, it appeared he had a point.

But that was then. Five months in the whirlwind of modern sport is a relative lifetime. And, as both he and Gatland understand better than most, a fresh voice (even one who has been back home in New Zealand for a while) can sometimes be more galvanising than a familiar one.

The trick lies in precisely how long that initial uplift – Gatland famously won a Six Nations Grand Slam at the first attempt with Wales in 2008 – can be sustained.

The other crucial word in all this is freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom from narrow tactical straitjackets, freedom from the fear of failure.

Imagine if English rugby ventured something similar to the cricketers and released their players, like grateful doves, to fly in less regimented formations. They might lose a few games here and there but, equally, they would win over enormous numbers of hearts and minds.

Stokes’s side certainly look as if they have been unshackled. Wales’s rugby players – and this is no reflection on the ousted Pivac – will feel similarly unburdened by the time they kick off the Six Nations, simply because man management, tactical cunning and selectorial nous are all noted Gatland strengths.

He will make them believe in themselves again and pick round pegs in round holes, which is three-quarters of the trick.

Whether the RFU sticks or twists, that is also the recipe for reviving the English patient. But if it is the latter, you can only hope someone inside Twickenham has factored in the ultimate Hammer House horror: Jones coaching against England at next year’s World Cup and emerging victorious.

The last time he worked as an 11th hour consultant at a World Cup, in 2007, he helped South Africa claim the trophy. Imagine something similar in 2023: Eddie and Rassie Erasmus together in electric dreams, the ultimate in oval-ball soap operas. English rugby needs to be very careful what it wishes for. - Guardian