The choice of Eddie Jones as World Rugby Coach of the Year was hardly the most startling news ever to emerge from Monte Carlo. Like a race leader at the Monaco Grand Prix, opportunities to overtake his England side have been few this calendar year, with only Ireland doing so back in March.
England still lifted the Six Nations title for the second successive year and under Jones have won 22 of their 23 games.
This raises three increasingly interesting questions. The first is simple enough: who will be the next side to defeat Jones’s increasingly confident mob? England are due to play 12 Tests in 2018 and their schedule, even at this distance, looks appreciably more demanding than it was this year. Italy (a), Wales (h), Scotland (a), France (a) and Ireland (h) is no one’s idea of a cosy Six Nations fixture list, with a three-Test tour to South Africa and home November Tests against the Springboks, New Zealand, Japan and Australia to follow. Win the lot and Eddie will merit emperor status.
Suddenly, all too soon, it will be 2019 and a World Cup in Japan which Jones, from day one, has been aiming towards. With the tireless Australian it can pay to take a step back and study his actions, rather than hang endlessly on his every word. Many of his trademark rasping quips are designed for short-term diversionary effect anyway, freeing up his players to concentrate on their rugby. Behind the scenes England have been made to sweat more than at any point since they were last world champions in 2003. Even Jones’s adversaries cannot help but admire his single-minded work ethic.
Of late he has had the hump with the media in general, irritated by the less than rapturous reaction to England’s win against Argentina and the manner in which one or two of his remarks before the Australia game were construed in print. These are minor details in the normal scheme of things but not when Jones perceives people are starting to take him a shade lightly. He wants the press eating out of his hand, not nipping his fingertips.
No one disputes, however, that coaching England is a demanding job, even with the enviable financial resources at Jones’s disposal. Which begs the second key question du jour: who out there has the gale-force of personality, the front-of-house chutzpah, the tactical aptitude and the burning desire to take over from the former Wallabies and Japan head coach when, as he has continually stressed, he steps aside in under two years’ time? The more wins England secure under Jones in 2018 and 2019, the higher the bar will be set for his successor.
So far the Rugby Football Union has merely indicated it will scour the world for the best available candidate and that Jones's opinion will be canvassed. Privately it knows it may not be a straightforward process. Steve Hansen's hugely productive stint with the All Blacks will soon be entering its closing laps but coaching England hardly tops his to-do list. Warren Gatland? Not impossible, with New Zealand Rugby more likely to anoint Hansen's deputy Ian Foster, but probably a long shot.
Few are more savvy than Ireland's Joe Schmidt but would he really want to coach another European nation? Andy Farrell's name will certainly re-enter the frame, as will Steve Borthwick's, if a homegrown coach is desired. But hold on. These are familiar faces and the best shortlists require at least a couple of thought-provoking candidates to keep everybody else honest.
Which is why Scotland's fast start under Gregor Townsend will be interesting to the RFU. Townsend is a mere 44 years old and has served a long coaching apprenticeship with Glasgow. If he can build so quickly on the foundations laid by Vern Cotter, could a bright Premiership coach not do something similar? Saracens' management have been the market leaders in tactical savvy for a while but Exeter, under Rob Baxter, Ali Hepher and Rob Hunter, have not lost to them in three attempts in 2017. Then there is Johan Ackermann, who is turning Gloucester round from a virtual standing start, and Dave Rennie, Townsend's successor at Glasgow. Rennie's sides play excellent rugby and, like Gatland and Schmidt before him, it appears he will have to coach at Test level overseas before the All Blacks consider him.
And the third question? Well, the British & Irish Lions will also require a head coach in South Africa in 2021. Townsend’s name is starting to be floated as a possibility but he will not want to leave Scotland in the lurch so soon. Better, surely, to go for a proven turnaround merchant, with a knowledge of the South African rugby environment and respect for the touring team’s rich heritage. Someone, in fact, last seen clutching a trophy in Monte Carlo on Sunday night. England’s looming loss could well prove the Lions’ gain.