By James Beringer
Another year, another round of gongs to be passed around the rugby elite. This year’s player of the year and coach of the year have now been named. While Beauden Barrett successfully retained his player of the year award, the main focus was on the coaching category.
A fierce competition ultimately ended with Eddie Jones claiming the prize, and in doing so becoming the first England coach to win the award since Sir Clive Woodward.
Jones himself seemed a little embarrassed at being awarded the prize, reiterating his belief that New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen should have won the award instead. However, analysing the performances of the top teams leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jones was the correct choice for his consistency, game management and player management.
Steve Hansen is an excellent coach; however, the All Blacks record definitely dipped somewhat in comparison with last year. They lost two games for the first time in nearly 10 years, were pushed to the limit in games against Australia, South Africa (bizarrely enough) and Scotland, and were unable to secure a series win over the British and Irish Lions in July.
Granted, a lot of the problems with the All Blacks weren’t really Hansen’s fault. The team had been ravaged by injury and by the time they played Wales last week three-quarters of the starting XV were ruled out. Their loss to the Lions came as a result of Sonny Bill Williams’ red card, and if Beauden Barrett had been able to land all of his penalty and conversion attempts in the 2nd or 3rd test, the All Blacks would have won the series and I’d now be writing an article about why Steve Hansen fully deserved his coach of the year award.
However, what is more worrying, and can definitely be used to criticize Hansen’s approach, was the nature of those losses and the lack of game management that Hansen’s team displayed. The All Blacks looked so used to cruising through every game, establishing an early lead, and blowing opponents away in the final 10 minutes that when they inevitably found themselves in the position of chasing a game they looked panicked and confused.
Many will recall the 2013 game between New Zealand and Ireland in which the All Blacks snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the final play of the game. It seems unlikely that the current All Blacks would be able to pull something like that off.
In their game against Scotland two weeks ago, New Zealand seemed to fold under pressure in the final 10 minutes as Scotland nearly clawed their way to a famous victory. If it hadn’t been for an exquisite, Beauden Barrett (clearly everything in New Zealand rugby is tied to him in some shape or form) covering tackle in the final minute, New Zealand would have lost 3 games in a calendar for the first time since 2009.
Warren Gatland was another name linked to the award following his stint as head coach of the Lions during the summer. While I have the utmost respect for Gatland, naming him as coach of the year would have been a mistake, fuelled entirely on Home Nations nostalgia (if you can have nostalgia for something that happened five months ago).
Yes, they managed to beat the All Blacks in Wellington but that victory was almost in spite of Gatland’s coaching rather than because of it. A team composed of the best 15 players across four tier one nations should regularly be able to defeat a side composed of 14 men, but the Lions only really came to life when they themselves went down to 14 as well. In fact, looking at the statistics of the tour, Gatland’s record reads played 10, won five, drew two, lost three – hardly the statistics of a consistent coach.
Finally, a small group have begun to sing the praises of Scotland’s Gregor Townsend. While clearly an excellent club coach given his record with Glasgow Warriors, he has only been in charge of the national team for six games. The initial signs have been promising, although there have been a few teething issues – most notably the loss to Fiji.
Overall, the only blemish on Jones’ record is a narrow loss to Ireland in the Six Nations. Although he didn’t win a second successive Grand Slam, his team did retain the trophy.
He then guided England to a series win over Argentina. The following list will demonstrate how many key players Eddie was missing from that tour due to their commitment to the Lions: Owen Farrell, Eliot Daly, Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Ben Te’o, Jonathan Joseph, James Haskell, Courtney Lawes, George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Kyle Sinckler, Joe Marler, Dan Cole and Jamie Goerge. He was also without Billy Vunipola and first choice scrum-half Ben Youngs.
Following the successful summer tour, his side were solid if unspectacular during the recent international window and ground out wins over Argentina, Australia (England’s fifth win in a row against the Wallabies) and Samoa. Yes, they had their difficulties, but they always believed and played as though they could win every game and almost always were able to do so. That is the mark of a successful team and that is why Jones fully deserves the accolades given to him.
What Jones has brought to the team is not so much a revolutionary style of play, but rather a sense of belief in the squad that they are fully capable of competing with the very best sides in international rugby. It is an approach Jones has said would not go amiss in the England football setup, claiming that the English national team are entrenched too deeply in their comfort zones to have the necessary mentality to compete at the highest level.
Please note here, South Africa, that it is not necessary for teams to enter a foxhole naked to the tune of the Haka or God Save the Queen, to enter a freezing lake naked, or to crawl across gravel naked (I am not making any of this up, and if you would love to read more about the nude exploits of the Springboks in the early 2000s I’d suggest looking up Camp Staaldraad in incognito mode) in order to create a team spirit and the ability to remain calm under pressure.
Rather it comes from identifying the key areas that a team is likely to struggle in and providing intensive training and direction to be fully prepared for a competitive scenario. His approach to game structure has also been impressive, knowing exactly the correct time to bring on his bench (known within the England camp as ‘finishers’) for impact in the final quarter of the game.
He has also been prepared to make difficult selection calls, to change his system if something doesn’t seem to be working (see for example the decision to remove Luther Burrell after 28 minutes in Brisbane), and to give adequate preparation to cultivate strength in depth.
In terms of their style of play, arguably Jones has refined the approach developed under Stuart Lancaster. The reason Lancaster’s side failed during the 2015 World Cup was due to the inexplicable decision to abandon the game plan they had been developing over the previous four years the moment the tournament began.
Re-watching the pivotal game against Australia demonstrates this perfectly. The brief time period England decided to start using the width of the pitch ended up being the time that they scored their only try.
They also suffered from an inconsistent selection policy that appeared to be completely arbitrary and utterly confusing. The imposition of Sam Burgess at outside centre was the most memorable example, but also the conservative selection of Brad Barritt over more creative midfielders.
Finally, their scrum and breakdown were significantly below standard due to the lack of a world class number 7, and were badly exposed during the World Cup. The warning signs were there against Fiji in the opening game and were then exploited by Australia later in the tournament. It is in these areas that Jones has excelled.
Realising that the basic defensive and set-piece needed to be solid was his first change – just look at the second test against Australia in 2016 to see how improved England were in this area.
He has also continued the expansive style of rugby that was beginning to develop under his predecessor. England will often have a very wide and deep first receiver on the first pass from the ruck, which allows the ball to move quickly to the wings.
The issue for opposing teams is that even when they widen their defensive line to accommodate this, one of Ben Youngs or Danny Care will employ the pick and go to devastating effect. This sort of tactical awareness comes from thorough direction and coaching, knowing where and when to employ different approaches at different stages of the game.
Jones has crafted a ruthless mentality, the ability to win crucial games through sheer determination, and an unrivalled strength in depth. His team have the confidence and the tactical awareness to enter any game and expect not simply to have a go, but to win, and win convincingly.
For those reasons, Jones should be proud of his extraordinary impact on a side which, at one stage, looked to be down, out and defeated. It is almost impossible to see England succumbing to the same fate in Japan 2019, and that is entirely down to the vision of a coachable to squeeze the very best performances out of every member of their team – the surest sign that an individual is excelling in their field.
Photograph: The Ruck