Nsay that Eddie Jones does not have the courage of his convictions. Avoiding the dominant wisdom has never bothered him, nor does he mind making difficult decisions. English head coaches don’t have to follow the party line, nor are they judged, in Jones’ experience, by the number of loving cards laid on their chimneys at Christmas.
But, strong, he can be brutal. As Billy Vunipola, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Ben Earl, Alex Lozowski, George Ford, Danny Care, Dan Robson, Ollie Lawrence, Ted Hill and many more can attest, he gives people the benefit of the doubt as often as he does. ‘a hungry rattlesnake. Once you cease to be the flavor of the month, or Jones smacks of the vaguest hint of complacency, banishment to the dusty backcountry of selective oblivion can be excruciatingly quick.
Having nominated 180 players for various English teams during his six years at the helm, no one could accuse Jones of not playing on the pitch. He glides straight with as much gusto as any teenage boy in love, and this time around Uncapped Raffi Quirke, Nic Dolly, Tommy Freeman, and Mark Atkinson are included. Even Jones would not have included all of this quartet on his coupon last spring.
It turns out, however, that what really drives Jones is less the youthful potential of some people – Quirke and Freeman certainly have a lot of them – but the scars of his previous coaching life. As Australia coach in 2003, Jones felt he had kept his trust too long with a few members of the team’s old guard. The Wallabies led England in overtime in the final in Sydney but, obviously, some regrets persist.
Hence the deliberate decision to turn things around, throw another cat among a bunch of revamped pigeons and, perhaps, adapt the English game. Look past the immediate headlines and gallery oohs and aahs and this could be one of the fastest England teams ever to be selected. Adam Radwan, Jonny May, Harry Randall, Quirke, Sam Simmonds… Jones clearly wants to see faster scratches on the old soft chariot.
And even. With Jones, there often has to be a caveat as his choices can so often run counter to the latest available evidence. If the revitalized Vunipola brothers and George aren’t back internationally, then many of us have to make an urgent trip to Specsavers. There are five “tournament pieces” left before the 2023 World Cup and Jones has confirmed that “all the team groundwork” will be laid at next week’s camp in Jersey. Okay, but how will we really know if Jamie Blamire or Dolly are better hookup options than George if they never share the same training ground?
There’s also a feeling that most of that fall squad must have been picked before Sunday afternoon, when the ousted Saracens contingent made one of the most striking statements in recent Premiership history during of a 71-17 victory in Bath. How else to explain the absence in the English plans of the remarkable brothers Vunipola, George and Earl? Or, conversely, the inclusion of Charlie Ewels and Will Stuart, who both enjoyed an afternoon of respite. “If I had any doubts, we would have a different team,” Jones said, sticking firmly to his latest “Treat them bad, keep them excited” blueprint.
But wait a minute. Does there really have to be a direct correlation between a chain of events in Australia two decades ago and the situation in England today? Jones says he’s looking for “discretionary effort” – that is, people breaking their stomachs to get on the World Cup plane – but when the constant turnover of assistant coaches and players ceases it to be positive in terms of relationships and loyalty? There are times in training when a big stick helps, but even very senior players often respond better to a quiet carrot or two.
Despite all the excitement and promise of Marcus Smith, Alex Dombrandt, Max Malins and lightning fast Radwan, there remains the smallest question of England’s starting balance. If Smith starts at 10, as he surely should be offered the opportunity to do so, it would seem logical to choose his teammate Dombrandt and a physical ball transport center. But Owen Farrell has been selected as captain and Robson, arguably Smith’s most complementary scrum-half option, isn’t even on the squad. England do not want to risk falling between two tactical stools.
And then, who knows ? Perhaps a somewhat experimental month of November will pay off. Jones’s restless magpie eye, always on the lookout for something new and shiny, could unearth some gems for France in two years. Perhaps England will approach the 2022 Six Nations with new momentum – Jones is a big fan of Newcastle mainstay Trevor Davison and no one doubts the promise of Leicester’s George Martin – and with a freewheeling rear division. Not to mention their contingent of supercharged Saracens pawing frantically on the ground, desperate for a recall. In this case, Jones’s cruelty will have paid off.