England have won 22 out of the 23 Test Matches they have played since Eddie Jones became Head Coach. It is an extraordinary record, particularly given the depths England were plumbing when Jones took over. The Australian has rebuilt the national team from perhaps its lowest ebb, the group-stage exit at its home Rugby World Cup in 2015, masterminding back-to-back Six Nations triumphs and a whitewash in Australia. It is a truly astonishing turn around, but not a surprise. Eddie Jones is a special coach with a unique philosophy: selecting for type and character rather than form.
How Eddie Jones watches rugby
Jones attends at least one Aviva Premiership game every weekend, often more. His assistants do the same thing, sometimes together, sometimes alone. They sit in the stands and take notes, sometimes on notepads, sometimes without writing anything at all. They do not consume the game in the way most do. Jones is not interested in who wins or loses. He does not necessarily care about who made the most metres. He does not focus on the try-scorers.
Jones looks for the things the regular rugby fan doesn’t notice. The missed clear-out in the 28th minute that slowed the ball down, allowing the defense to get back in shape. He isn’t watching the game to find the best performers in domestic rugby; Eddie Jones wants to see how players will translate to the international game.
Don Armand is a good example – the Exeter Chief is consistently excellent for his club all across the back row. There are plenty of Red Rose supporters who feel Armand warrants selection not just in the squad, but in the 23. But Jones does not. He sees Armand as a six at international level in this England team. But Jones wants his sixes to work harder between the 15-metre lines and carry more destructively in tight than Armand does. And thus, however pressing the back-rower’s form is, he is on the outside looking in.
Eddie Jones’ Philosophy
Eddie Jones has a type, and at each position he is looking for a starter and an alternative of similar ilk. Nathan Earle has been in-and-out of the Saracens team this year, but Jones doesn’t care. What he sees is a six-foot-one left winger with out-and-out pace who involves himself whenever possible: like incumbent Jonny May. Ten-come-twelve Piers Francis is a thoroughly unspectacular player, but his defensive solidity can be likened to that of Owen Farrell. See Charlie Ewels, read Courtney Lawes (both are roughly six-foot-seven and 250 pounds). These are players built in similar ways who do similar things on the field
Two selections and explanations from England’s most recent squad explain how Eddie Jones thinks well. Gary Graham was a somewhat surprising call-up to the New Year training group, but he has retained his place for the Six Nations. When asked about the Newcastle Falcons’ qualities, Jones praised him, saying “Graham reminds me a bit of (Chris) Robshaw so he’s not an out and out seven but he’s a good tough boy.” Jones has memorably referred to both Robshaw and James Haskell as a “six-and-a-half”; with the latter banned it is no surprise he has looked for another one to be his successor as Haskell ages.
Jack Nowell was listed among the ‘inside backs’ in the Six Nations squad press release, rather than with the rest of England’s back three players. Many questioned this, some wondering if there had been a clerical error. But this was deliberate: Eddie Jones thinks Nowell could be a strong fit at thirteen as the alternative to Jonathan Joseph. Like his countrymate Nowell possesses strong defensive nous, pace and deceptive power.
The importance of morale and character
The aforementioned training squads assemble a few times each year, and they are crucial events for any England hopeful. Jones wants to find out about your character, see how you fit with the group. For him, a harmonious group is a successful one; one bad apple can spoil the bunch. Morale is huge at any level, and teamwork is paramount to success. Jones is, from all reports, a hard taskmaster and demanding coach who requires effort, but he keeps the players on side. He is not quick to drop players, even after a misdemeanour like Denny Solomona and Manu Tuilagi’s drunken escapade. He stands by his team, his squad, his group. It his qualities as a firm but loyal leader that make him such a good coach.
Character is crucial to Jones, too, and that is why many of England’s most oft-criticised players retain their places. Dylan Hartley is not the most talented hooker in England. He is however a leader, a reliable soldier who’s judgement Jones trusts. Mike Brown is similarly consistent and trusted at full-back despite not having the game-breaking abilities of other options at the position. Furthermore, by sticking by his chosen players Jones is showing them that he is loyal to them, and thus they will be loyal to and perform for him. This is how he has cultivated a winning machine, and that is why he is unlikely to drop Hartley or Brown. Eddie Jones selects for type and character rather than form, and until it stops working, it is hard to criticise him.
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