WHO WAS THE LUMINARY OF ENGLAND’S AUTUMN SERIES? THE SNAKE-HIPPED, WING-HEELED ELIOTT DALY? THE ALL-COURT COURTNEY LAWES? OR PERHAPS YOU WERE WOWED BY THE UNDERSTATED ORCHESTRATION OF GEORGEOUS GEORGE FORD? NO QUESTION, HE WAS THE CAT’S PAJAMAS.
Mind you, you could also make a strong case for TMO, Simon McDowell, who turned in a tireless, show-stopping performance against Australia; how Joe Launchbury stole the Man of the Match award I’m still not sure. Indeed in a mighty, eighty-minute cameo, McDowell seemed to be in every frame in the flick. It was like watching Ray Liotta in ‘Goodfellas’.
Personally, though, I’d go for Eddie Jones, a man who – to stick for a moment with Scorsese’s mob masterpiece and with apologies to Joe Pesci – would’ve made a marvellous Tommy DeVito. (‘I’m funny? How? I mean, funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?’) Certainly an autumn Oscar for Eddie J – Best Performance in a Leading Role – would neatly bookend his mantelpiece following his scoop as ‘World Rugby, Coach of the Year, 2017’: it’d also reward a November in which he’s been sharp, agile, elusive, inexhaustible, uncompromising in the loose and – when required – able to offer a brutal kicking game. And this was just in news conferences.
There are few – anywhere, in any sport – who master the media as magnificently as Jones. What to say, when to say it, when to keep his mouth shut; these are just the basic brushstrokes. Jones has turned media management into an art form wherein he can set agendas, stage diversions, draw fire, rough up the opposition and offer his own players sticks and carrots. It’s like watching Ashkenazy playing ‘Chopsticks’.
Samoa week – to take one priceless example – was all set to be headlined by Saracens’ Jamie George. He was top of everyone’s shopping list in the press-room and understandably so; two years parked behind The Skipper waiting for a richly-deserved chance to start; widely held by many to be England’s best hooker; not once, not twice but thrice a Test Lion and an engaging, honest character with brains if not looks. Jamie, we jest.
But aside from the hour he spent on the pitch at Twickenham, he was invisible all week; he was, we were told, ‘unavailable’ for TV interviews, radio profiles, picture opportunities and press quotes. Pre-game, post-game, he simply wasn’t on the menu; no access and no questions. Why not? England Media Manager, Gareth Mills, shrugged his shoulders so, presumably, not a decision he’d made.
Contrast that with the media profile that week of Dylan Hartley. When Eddie Jones held court on Thursday to unveil his team for Samoa, Hartley – the reserve hooker for the game – was sitting at His right hand; top table, centre-stage with ‘Co-Captains’ – George Ford and Chris Robshaw – packing down on the flanks. Here was a tableau you didn’t need a degree in theology to interpret; look, he may be wearing sixteen this week but this is my bloke, okay? Everyone got it? Good. First question please, Gail.
And pitch-side post the Samoa game as ‘Sky Sports’ closed in for a word with the aforementioned Co-Captain Robshaw, England’s media handlers were also closing in to insist the interview was Hartley’s. ‘But Robshaw and Ford are co-captains, Fordy’s Man of the Match and talking to Will Greenwood at the milk float so shouldn’t we have Captain Chris Robshaw here with Captain Chris Vui from Samoa?’ we said. Verity from the RFU – clearly briefed to the back teeth on this one – was having none of it. ‘Dylan’s the captain on the field at the end of the game, so it’s him’, she said, deftly ignoring the fact that Dylan wasn’t the captain on the field at the end of the Argentina game or the Australia game yet – as captain on the team-sheet – was rightly the spokesman for the side. But then in those two games, the point didn’t have to be made. Against Samoa, it seems it did and, emphatically, it was.
And even when the subject of Jamie George was finally broached – we’re now in the media debriefing after the match – the conversation wasn’t exactly lengthy. ‘Productive,’ said Eddie Jones when asked to evaluate his hooker’s performance. Pencils poised, the poets of the press box waited for the Head Coach to elaborate but he didn’t; indeed, what we’d all assumed to be a very long comma turned out to be a full stop. ‘Is that it, one word?’ he was asked. Jones reconsidered. ‘No, very good, worked hard.’ And if you found that fulsome quote in your Sunday paper, you were doing well. I didn’t find it in mine.
Quite why Eddie Jones feels Hartley’s leadership is so indispensible is a question for another day – an important question too in the context of who’re the movers and shakers in the Officers’ Mess – but clearly England weren’t about to throw a log onto a fire that might singe The Skipper. Who’s the better hooker is a moot point and sharper rugby minds than mine will give you chapter and verse. But Jones’s media management of that issue last week effectively makes any further discussion redundant. Hartley’s his man. Next question, please.
This, though, is how cute Eddie Jones can be and not just in terms of setting agendas or hosing down stories that – unchecked – might become a fire hazard. More than anyone in sport he understands that – alas – we in the media would rather run with a two cent sound-bite than a five dollar discourse; that precious few will remember tomorrow whatever was said today – let alone yesterday – and that, as Harold Wilson once observed, a week in Westminster is an awfully long time.
So – for example – during the Argentina game, Jones was caught on camera effing for England and generally behaving – frankly – like a toddler. The day after, though, he was remorsefully telling the world how his ninety-three-year-old Mum had rung him up at five thirty that morning to give him a right wigging. What, like Mrs. Jones – bless her – thought her boy had never sworn before? This is the finest sledger in Australian rugby history we’re talking about here. Hello? But of course, the story was so beguiling the rugby world smiled, forgave and forgot.
Compare and contrast with a week later when the second-finest sledger in Australian rugby history, Michael Cheika, was caught with his potty in his mouth and ended up being cited by World Rugby. Had Cheika – a la Eddie – had the presence of mind to offer a little cheeky contrition or to find some apron strings to hide behind, he might have avoided having salt rubbed in his wounds but he didn’t, all of which merely emphasised Jones’s media genius. He has the footwork of Fred Astaire.
This is the man – again – who started the autumn series demanding his team take ownership of their performances yet when they misfired in their opening match, held up his hand and said he’d carry the can. ‘Whoa, Eddie, how does that stack up?’ you ask. ‘Mate, the media want to blame someone, don’t they, so I’m happy for them to blame me.’ Really? ‘So when we see you sounding off on Eddie-Cam – ‘fuck, how fucking stupid are we?’ – that’s you scolding yourself and your coaching team?’ you ask. ‘A hundred per cent, mate.’ The man, I swear, can follow you into a revolving door and come out in front.
How many more examples do you need? Two years ago – when he was taking the media shilling – he wrote in the ‘Daily Mail’ that England’s open-side and captain, Chris Robshaw was ‘a good club player’, that at international level he had ‘no point of difference’ and that he was ‘a six and half at best.’ He then picks Robshaw to play seven against Samoa and when the glaring contradiction is pointed out, he says, disarmingly; ‘well, life’s full of contradictions, isn’t it? Mate, he’s a good player.’
Rugby Union’s gain is The Law’s loss. He’d have made an implacable advocate. ‘I remember Massingberd’s most famous case,‘ said Rowan Atkinson in Curtis and Elton’s peerless ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. ‘The Case of the Bloody Knife. A man was found next to a murdered body. He had the knife in his hand, thirteen witnesses had seen him stab the victim and when the police picked him up he said to them: ‘I’m glad I killed the bastard.’ Massingberd not only got him acquitted, he got him knighted in the New Year’s Honours’ List and the relatives of the victim had to pay to have the blood washed out of his jacket.’ That’s Eddie Jones for you, right there; in fact, he’d probably have got his man all of above and a lift home from the Old Bailey courtesy of the Chief Constable’s chauffeur.
Bewitching, bamboozling, he can also be brutal. He has no qualms about rinsing journalists and certainly, if you’re ‘live’ and he’s feeling frisky, you’d better pitch the ball up. But then on the other hand if you do put in a yard of hard homework and chuck a few into the block-hole or bounce a couple round his ears he’ll simply dead bat you or duck. An Eddie innings is always on his terms. If he wants to play shots, he’ll play them and if doesn’t, you get the flat bat, the famous frown and the quizzical eyebrow. There are times when pinning down Jones is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.
And, of course, what sustains his sovereignty right now – and not just in the media – is his record. How exactly do you gainsay a 96% win rate? There was a delicious moment during the fag-end of the Wales/New Zealand game when the handbags – very briefly – were flapping, Wayne Barnes intervened to restore order and Reiko Ioane slowly backed away, staring down the Welsh players and pointing at the scoreboard. In fact, in all, he pointed at it four times. And Jones – similarly – is Reiko-proof. Excuse me but I’ve turned a team that bombed in its own World Cup into a side that’s won 22 out of 23. Are you seriously telling me you’ve got a complaint to make?
Yes, well, perhaps not a complaint but a small caution. Because for all that World Rugby has anointed him the ‘Coach of the Year’, 2017 hasn’t exactly been flawless. France back in February was a last-gasp salvage job – likewise Wales – and Italy couldn’t have been more embarrassing if England had taken to the pitch with no clothes on; Scotland – praise where praise is due – wasn’t just brilliant but ruthlessly brilliant but then Ireland a week later was almost supine.
Argentina – over there in the summer – was genuinely bold and brassy yet – over here in the autumn – a fumble of a performance; Australia – arguably – looked the likelier lads for seventy minutes and Samoa was a game the All Blacks would’ve won by seventy. Add that lot up and you’d conclude England were rather more impressive in 2016 – when they slammed the Six Nations and whitewashed the Wallabies in Australia – than they were in 2017.
Of course, Eddie Jones will tell you that 2017 was about finding some depth, although if he’d really wanted to cast his net, he’d have rested all his Lions and run through the autumn with the players he had in the summer. I don’t know why he didn’t. The opposition was hardly terrifying and – mid-cycle World Cup-wise – it was a gift horse. But, of course, that might have jeopardised the winning streak and winning – as we’ve mentioned – is Eddie’s ‘Kavacha’; in Hindu mythology, an armour ‘impenetrable even to heavenly weapons.’
So for all that Jones’s capped fourteen newbies this year, what’s he learned? Wilson, Collier, Armand and Maunder were part of the summer but played no part in the autumn. Solomona never made the final cut for the November tests and Curry – sadly – was injured and missed out on the autumn series. Post the Argentina tour, Isiekwe and Francis got twenty minutes off the bench against Samoa; Lozowski, Ewels, Genge and Simmonds made the fifteen against the Islanders but against no one else and Harry Williams – inexplicably – was benched for the entire autumn. Only Sam Underhill got two starts and – bless him – after a torpedo of a performance against Argentina he was crocked out against Australia.
So if you add up all that, where does it leave you? Put it this way, if the two front runners in each of the fifteen positions on the team were to fall over – if you like, the Vunipola/Hughes scenario this autumn – who’d be the next cab off the rank, for example, at hooker? Or at tight-head prop? Or at openside, at eight, at scrum-half or in the centres? The cupboard isn’t bare – the cupboard in England is never bare – but do England really have the depth they reckon they need given how often Eddie Jones mentions that it was a fourth choice fly–half fresh off a fishing holiday who kicked New Zealand to the World Cup in 2011? And if they haven’t, when are they hoping to uncover it?
Of the fourteen, Sam Simmonds looks the likeliest; you may remember, he’s the one The Boss said wasn’t big enough to play eight roughly two weeks before he picked him to play eight; ‘mate, a back row’s about balance.’ Plenty reckon he’ll make a cracking open-side – fast, dynamic, destructive, strong over the ball – except that Eddie wants to bulk him up. ‘He’s a good young rugby player. We’ve just got to get some beef on him. We might have to send him down to Miyazaki in Japan and get him to eat some Miyazaki beef. Obviously those Cornish pasties aren’t working. Against the bigger sides he’s going to need that. He just needs a bit more ballast.’
Hmm. I’m not sure what Rob Baxter would make of that or indeed Simmonds himself given his clear point of difference seems to be his speed and dynamism. And against Samoa – and Tests don’t get much more physical than Samoa – he was the leading carrier (18), made the third most metres (96) and was fourth equal on tackles (14). He doesn’t appear to need too much more heft.
Look, there’s no question England are a bugger to beat, a gift that’s priceless in any sport. But given how often Jones talks about traditional English strengths, you have to say that on the basis of this autumn, the scrum doesn’t convince, the driving maul has stalled and the breakdown broke down against Samoa, a tier-two team who turned over England twenty times. Restarts have been scratchy, the kicking game is hit and miss and ball handling – on occasions – sloppy. And that’s before you factor in a penalty count that was in double figures all autumn, the one area, arguably, where England can effortlessly match New Zealand.
And, looking ahead, 2018 will not be for the squeamish, which, yes, is what England would want but which might burst a few balloons. The Six Nations will be ferocious; if South Africa clean out the stables and bring in some fresh horses then a three-match summer tour down there could yet prove to be savage and that’s before you head back to TW1 and a flat out, four-Test autumn when the All Blacks roll into town. Indeed, if Eddie’s still at 96% this time next year, he really will be Untouchable.
But that’s a very big ‘if’. England are about to cross the Khumbu Icefall and head up towards the Lohtse Wall and if – by the end of 2018 – they can stave off the frostbite and the altitude sickness and set up camp on the South Col ready to push on to the summit, then Eddie England might well find himself standing on top of the world come November 2019. Or then again, he might not. But, unquestionably, we have reached the tricky bit.
01 DECEMBER 2017