England’s problems won’t end with the departure of Jones

The decision to sack their most successful coach may be one that the RFU come to regret

Eight minutes to play, and England are 14 points down against New Zealand. Will Stuart has just scored in the corner, and now Marcus Smith is standing over the conversion, on the 22, five metres in from the right-hand side.

It should be Owen Farrell’s kick. Farrell, who has made every shot at goal so far in the autumn, 15 out of 15 across 200 minutes of Test rugby, is still on the pitch, but struggling with a dead leg.

So it falls to Smith. He strides up, leans back a touch too much as he swings his boot through, and the ball flies wide, passing a couple of feet outside the right upright.

No one really noticed it in all the excitement of those final minutes, but that missed kick was the difference. Not that the resulting draw was Smith’s fault; without him, England would not have scored the three tries they needed to get back into the match.

READ MORE

But England were a point away, which means, unless you believe the Rugby Football Union would have been brave enough to sack Eddie Jones after his team had beaten New Zealand, they were only a gust of wind away from reaching a different decision.

A fortnight earlier, England were two points off beating Argentina. But for a wayward kick here, and a wasteful penalty there, England would have won three out of four this autumn.

England would still have played badly for long stretches of those same matches, would still have been battered by South Africa in the final game of the autumn, and beaten by Scotland, Ireland, and France in the Six Nations earlier in the year.

But it is fair to ask if Jones would have been able to weather the end-of-series review that cost him his job if his team had picked up those three points against New Zealand and Argentina. Which is a desperately thin margin for any coach, let alone one with Jones’s track record.

Of course Jones was not sacked just because of what happened in those two matches; he has made a series of escalating mistakes, the main one, as he said himself, that he let his focus drift too far ahead from the next game.

He would have got away with the rest of it – the flibbertigibbet selections, his ruthless way with his players and assistant coaches, his persistence with an attacking system that was not really working – if the team had only been winning in the meantime.

But Jones was more caught up worrying about the next World Cup than whether they were ready for their next Test.

Jones’s insistence that everything would come good when the team arrived in France for the tournament turned the future into a question of faith, and the way the team had been playing lately meant there were too few people left willing to believe.

It did not help that his ornery manner, and martinet bearing, meant he had made so many enemies along the way. By the end his own boss, the RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, was one of them.

You could hear Jones’s contempt when he told the press that Sweeney would make his decisions “based on what you guys write” after that defeat against South Africa.

Sweeney has heard worse, not least at the recent hearings by the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, where he was accused by MPs of being “asleep on the job” and “failure on an epic scale” before being told he ought to be “looking at his own position”.

Apparently he decided to look at someone else’s instead. Really, the question is not how much confidence English rugby had in Jones so much as in the men who decided to sack him off the back of all this, 10 months out from a tournament for which he has spent the past three years preparing. Because wherever you come down on the coach, there is no questioning what he has achieved.

The RFU, on the other hand, seems oblivious to England’s history. This is a team that, before Jones took over, had not won a Grand Slam in 13 years, who embarrassed themselves with their behaviour off the field in 2011 when they were beaten in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and who were bundled out of their own tournament in the pool stages in 2015.

Jones’s England just about won as many matches as Brian Ashton’s, Martin Johnson’s, and Stuart Lancaster’s teams did between them. Throw in Andy Robinson’s lot, too, and you find that under the four head coaches before Jones took over England won just over half the games they played.

That casts Jones’s 73% win rate in a different light.

It figures that if you were going to sack the most successful coach you have had you would not do it unless you had a clear idea that the replacement was going to be an improvement. So what is the RFU’s plan?

Oh yes, Jones’s assistant, Richard Cockerill, is taking over while they work it out. There is an expectation they will bring in Steve Borthwick, who spent years working as Jones’s right hand man and whose sum achievements without him are the Premiership title he won with Leicester last season.

English rugby’s problems won’t end with Jones going. Anything but. Long after he’s gone, and his replacement’s honeymoon is over, they might find that, if anything, Jones has spent years helping to cover them up. — Guardian