Tipping Point: Eddie Jones’s rhetoric is out of place in a febrile political climate
Mischievous verbal firecrackers are unnecessary in turbulent times
Eddie Jones: might have his tongue in his cheek when dishing out a few insults but presuming everyone is in on the joke is a big presumption. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Eddie Jones’s big mouth is a gift from the gods. You won’t hear that too much on the run-in to Sunday’s England-Ireland game at Twickenham but it’s true. Even the England coach’s biggest critics know he’s gold. It’s why everyone will hang on his every word this week.
A couple of years ago this is the guy who had to apologise for referring to “scummy Irish”. The outspoken Australian simultaneously alienated another nation, Wales, by describing it as “this little shit place”. He got criticised for that too.
Jones provoked more pearl-clutching this season over promises to inflict “absolute brutality” on France – a boast his team failed to back up – and for calling the Scots “niggly” which might be an understatement given how cantankerous some of our Celtic cousins actually are.
However, in a media environment where most rugby coverage recycles anodyne platitudes from bland smoothies, Jones can at least be relied upon to supply a little roughage to the rich prefects’ table.
Maybe some chose to be offended by that obviously playful “scummy Irish” line when it emerged but even the greenest patriot slaving in front of a hot laptop died and went to heaven.
At a time of peak Joe Schmidt management-speak about dummy run angles it was a joy to rant disapproval of cartoon stereotypes any dummy can understand.
It was the good old media two-step where the Aussie got ‘blasted’ by blasters silently giving thanks for his gift of good copy.
Jones knows this game backwards. Last week a BBC reporter quizzed him as to why he says the things he does instead of playing a straight bat. It was a query that must have had every hack on the planet screaming at her to shut up.
To his credit, instead of taking up the offer to stay schtum, Jones ran with the ball by admitting he enjoys stirring it, even adding that he feels a responsibility to create some theatre.
Whatever about such a responsibility his readiness to see the bigger picture is laudable, suggesting a man cool about his comments getting gratefully gobbled up and turned into a wall for others to bounce their virtue off of.
The pay-off is attention gets deflected from players. A less selfless consideration might be some profile pay-off into the bargain. But usually everyone realises it’s just a bit of fun.
It’s why Jones can probably shrug off widespread disapproval about how comments he and others have made this season are supposedly leading to rugby’s culture being coarsened.
That has been stirred into a pot of anxiety about slipping standards. Criticism about players giving lip to refs and place-kickers getting booed contain a subtext about such behaviour letting the side down and veering dangerously close to, gulp, football.
Rugby is always open to charges of hypocrisy in its presumption of moral superiority over other sports and official tut-tutting about combative language ignores the game’s long history of deliberately and self-consciously cultivating this stuff.
Rugby and warfare share a common language. It’s all about esprit de corps, discipline and teamwork, putting your body on the line for the sake of the cause. The best type of player is the one you’d want beside you in the trenches, fearless in the face of aerial bombardment.
All those martial ingredients become more amplified with each year as the game becomes an even more brutal series of collisions. It’s rugby as war, with florid narratives about bands of brothers fighting and dying for the cause.
Obviously that doesn’t mean talk of hate should be taken literally. It’s simply more of the melodramatic nonsense that rugby likes to indulge in. In the circumstances, Jones is entitled to argue he’s just playing the game when tossing out his mischievous verbal firecrackers.
Jones and everyone else would do well this week to dial the verbals down a few decibels
The problem is when people don’t understand the rules of the game and take it seriously.
Whatever moron dropped the beer bottle that hit an England staff member at Murrayfield last week might have been just drunk. The home fans that booed Owen Farrell’s kicks at goal might have been exercising their beer muscles too. But this stuff doesn’t just happen.
It’s easy to take the mickey out of rugby decorum sometimes but the game exists in no more of a vacuum than anything else.
This new aggressive atmosphere is taking place in a febrile political climate where some are ready to take rugby’s combative vernacular and very seriously wrap it around whatever flag or identity they want to wave.
Jones might have his tongue in his cheek when dishing out a few insults but presuming everyone’s is in on the joke is a big presumption.
Ireland-England games come with historical baggage anyway and this Sunday’s match no more takes place in isolation than any other.
Brexit’s truculent English nationalism has provoked a lot of smug condescension in this country. But the recent election that saw a quarter of voters in this State vote to put apologists for killers into power means another element has been lobbed into the pot from this side of the Irish Sea.
It goes against the journalistic grain to call for sporting figures to pull their punches. But in turbulent dog-whistle political circumstances, Jones and everyone else would do well this week to dial the verbals down a few decibels.
It’s over a century since the All Black player Thomas Ellison described rugby as the soldier-making game. That’s the sort of martial pose the game still loves to adopt, the whole rugby as war by other means narrative, and it’s a mostly harmless affectation.
However, employing inflammatory language and then expressing surprise when the atmosphere gets hot is a contradiction people should think about before opening their mouths this week.