Under Eddie Jones, England are on a nine-game winning run that has changed their fortunes markedly. Here's the chain of events that has led to a stunning turnaround
October 3rd, 2015 will be etched in the memory as a nadir for English rugby. The richest and largest playing nation in the world were booed from the Twickenham turf by sections of the crowd as they lost 33-13 to Michael Chieka’s resurgent Wallabies. The result saw them drop to No 8 in the world rankings.
That loss was to set off a chain of events that has seen them in little over seven months, go on a nine-game unbeaten run under Eddie Jones, that has catapulted them back near the summit of the world game, with only the peerless All Blacks to topple.
Step one: Stuart Lancaster stands down
After seeing out the World Cup with a hollow victory over Uruguay, Stuart Lancaster, a decent and honourable man, stood aside, his position no longer tenable. RFU Chief Executive Ian Ritchie and RFU Chairman Bill Beaumont, drew a line in the sand. They had to get the right man to turn the England team into a side capable of mounting a genuine assault on the World Cup in 2019.
Ritchie held a hastily arranged press conference to state categorically that no coach would be out of bounds, and that the RFU chequebook, bolstered by a financially lucrative World Cup, would be freed up to get the right man, as a foreign coach was considered for the first time.
Step two: The RFU get their man
While the press speculated over the usual suspects, Joe Schmidt, Jake White and Warren Gatland, six thousand miles away in South Africa, widely-travelled coach Eddie Jones was set to take up a position with the Stormers, with his stock riding high after guiding his Japan side to the biggest shock of World Cup history, by beating the Springboks.
Jones was duly sweet-talked into taking the England job with a handsome salary promised. With Lancaster’s assistant coaches not retained, he named lieutenants Steve Borthwick, Paul Gustard and latterly Neal Hatley to assist him, with Bristol, Saracens and Bath stepping reluctantly aside.
Talking to journalists in countries in which Jones had coached – Japan, Australia, South Africa – to a man, they all said Jones would ‘good value’ and to strap in for the ride.
An ‘off-the record’ drinks at Twickenham brought the first indication that Jones was going to do it his way, letting slip that he intended to give Dylan Hartley, the miscreant England hooker the captaincy. Jones wanted England to get their snarl back. He wasn’t looking to make friends, just to win games.
Step three: Hit the ground running
With little time to prepare for the Six Nations, Jones used his vast array of contacts to good effect. He roped in George Smith to help with England’s breakdown work and national icon Jonny Wilkinson to advise England’s kickers. It was an ingenious idea but helped galvanise the squad, keen to exorcise their World Cup nightmare.
Without ever hitting their straps, they dispatched all their contenders, only wobbling once against Wales at Twickenham late on, but holding out to travel to Paris, where again, they showed a resolve to win and pick up their first Grand Slam since 2003, despite losing Hartley to concussion late on in the match. England were picking up the habit of being able to find a way to win, whatever the opposition threw at them.
Step four: New England
A pattern was emerging. After every win was that Jones refused to look back. He was always looking to the next step. Here was a coach who refused to bask in the warm glow of victory with the stock response ‘we’ve achieved nothing’. Even in the bowels of the Stade de France, minutes after securing England’s first Slam in over a decade, he was stating his aim to beat an Australian side who had dispatched with his services in 2005, 3-0 in their own back yard. Not just that, but he’d gloat about it for a week afterwards. His abrasive attitude was a jolt to many who had witness mediocrity and a lack of ruthlessness since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
After comprehensively beating Wales at Twickenham in a money-spinner to pay back Premiership Rugby, they flew to Sydney to face the World’s No 2 team, a side who had not been whitewashed at home since 1971 by the Springboks, with Jones enlisting old Randwick mucker and former Wallaby, Glen Ella to offer some consultancy work looking at the backline.
Step five: Getting on the front foot
Knowing the partisan Australian media, Eddie Jones was at his prickly best straight off the plan, complaining of an impersonal bag-search at Brisbane and levelling accusations of a concerted campaign against his squad. He showed his ruthlessness hauling Luther Burrell after 28 minutes for failing to implement the defensive plan correctly, and through 24 points from Owen Farrell they eventually went on to win at the Suncorp 39-28, then the biggest score they’d ever recorded in Australia. Afterwards, he called out former Wallaby Stephen Hoiles for asking a disrespectful question in a press conference.
The next step was Melbourne and England’s eight consecutive wins even got a mention from the All Blacks, with Steve Hansen saying Jones was bullying his younger Randwick colleague Michael Cheika. Jones retorted that Hansen was just point-scoring with the Bledisloe Cup to come.
What followed was one of the greatest English defensive displays in the modern era, as 175 successful tackles were completed – more than two a minute – as they held out to win 23-7, with a gleeful Owen Farrell sealing the deal with a 73rd minute try.
Again, while a Series win was secured, Jones refused to change a winning squad and blood a group of players like Henry Slade, Alex Goode and Ben Te’o, patiently waiting in the wings.
Step six: Jones applies the coup de grace
For the final Test, he based the squad in Coogee Beach, where he had played as tearaway hooker. During the week another famous Wallaby appeared to help England out. Andrew ‘Joey’ Johns, one of the greatest Australian rugby league players of all-time was spotted giving advice to the half-backs. The Australian public were agog at the front of Jones, but Jones was unperturbed and preferred to concentrate on the final Test being England’s World Cup final and wanting a whitewash because ‘that’s what the All Blacks would do’.
A brilliant Test ensued and despite England trailing Australia on several occasions, they showed their resolve and courage to dig in and carve out a precious win to give the Wallabies their first whitewash since 1971. He again showed his ruthless side by pulling off Teimana Harrison after 31 minutes because he wasn’t seeing enough physicality, trusting wunderkind Maro Itoje to slot in at No 6. A try from Jamie George and penalty from Farrell, who ended the Series with 66 points, pulled them clear.
Step seven; Planning for the future
After ten consecutive wins (nine under Jones), you’d forgive Jones for basking in a remarkable achievement and heading for the nearest bar. Not a bit of it. Jones rammed home that England had a lot of work to do on and he wasn’t impressed they’d shipped five tries. Only perfection will do for but as long as England keep winning, the players, backroom staff and fans will happily join him for the ride.
With the Saxons winning out in South Africa and the U20s winning the World Championship, England is in rude health and Jones has the All Blacks in his sights. Steve Hansen may not be having sleepless nights, just yet, but England are the closest they have to challengers and credit must be heaped on Jones. English rugby is back.