Eddie Jones vows England’s faltering leaders will return to their best
Eddie Jones speaks to Billy Vunipola
There are few tougher coaching challenges in sport than when your stars are off-colour. While fringe deficiencies might be compensated for, fissures in the foundational pillars of a side threaten to bring its very construct crashing down.
That is, perhaps, where Eddie Jones finds himself. Two losses in a little over 12 months may seem like little cause for alarm, but England are failing the eye test, and the players and Jones admit that they were not at anywhere particularly close to their best against Scotland or Italy.
It is little surprise that England’s struggles recently have coincided with a drop in form from, among others, their number eight, scrum-half, full-back and captain. The merits of each of those individuals remaining key English cogs while form is lacking perhaps requires further debate, but Jones has shown through action and word his commitment and trust in them. He needs them back at somewhere near their best: no matter how opulent, attractive or expensive the watch, it is of little value if it seldom tells the right time.
Drawing particular criticism are Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell. An image of Farrell eschewing a significant overlap in favour of a kick against Scotland has been shared widely with both derision and contempt, and, having shifted from fly-half to inside centre, England’s captain made a number of errors in possession and from the tee against Italy.
Farrell took full blame for his tunnel vision in review of the Scotland game, but with England’s attack now twice largely out-of-sync so far this tournament, there is pressure on the Saracens playmaker.
Owen Farrell has come under criticism for his performances
“There would be very few players in our team that have been at their best,” said Jones. “I think Owen is one of those and he knows that. He is working very hard to get his game back to the standard that he wants and we want.”
Like most of the rest of the Saracens contingent in Jones’ squad, Farrell had not played before the tournament since the denouement of the Autumn Nations Cup, with the Championship season yet to begin and most of the north Londoners’ international stars not risked for friendlies against Ealing Trailfinders. Might that be why Farrell has looked a little off the pace?
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Jones would not conclude either way: “For every player it is different. It could be a factor, but we don’t know. He is not at his best at the moment but we are working very hard to make sure he gets at his best.”
Tellingly, Vunipola was the sole England squad member to appear in that Saracens friendly, with 80 minutes on the artificial turf at the Trailfinders Sports Ground deemed best practice for preparing a player who tends to get better with minutes in his legs: his best performance since the 2019 World Cup was that Autumn Nations Cup decider with France at the beginning of December that came after a run of games. Vunipola has looked strangely unable to generate consistent go-forward in England’s first two Six Nations games.
“We want him to carry, he’s an influential ball-carrier,” Jones, an Umbro ambassador, commented on his number eight. “The game ebbs and flows and sometimes you get in position to carry and sometimes you don’t. I think most players get better as they play consistent rugby.”
Perhaps England’s relative struggles speak also to the unique situation this competition finds itself in. Though a replacement will be named on Thursday for Jack Willis, who awaits surgery on a significant MCL injury and possible other knee damage, Jones is otherwise limited to his bubble of 28 players, holed up at the Lensbury hotel in Teddington. The players return on Thursday, and while England might usually train in central London or near Oxford for a change of scenery in these fallow weeks, that is obviously not possible. The absence of crowds is particularly felt in a tournament like the Six Nations, too.
“Rugby is a game of action and it is a game of interaction. The big thing we are missing at the moment is the interaction because of the social distancing and the [limited] number of minutes you can spend together inside. There is a bit of research that shows the arousal level in players have dropped, and so the type of play and the type of behaviour has been less aggressive.
“If I look at Liverpool, they are at their best when they are aggressive: pressing hard, their whole crowd are aggressive. Is that one of the reasons they have dropped off?
To combat burnout in the bubble and ensure his side play at their best, the England head coach has leaned on his network, speaking with an Irish psychologist he has known since 2000 and a data company in Australia he has used in the past. Neil Craig, the RFU’s head of elite performance and a key lieutenant for Jones, is consulted “every morning”.
“The game always gives you feedback on how you are handling training and how you are handling the environment. If you look at our first performance against Scotland, we lacked our normal aggression. We were a little bit better against Italy, but still not where we need to be.
“We’ve got plenty of work to do. We’ve been working on how we need to think, consulting a number of people on how we can get the right sort of chemistry in our team and move them forward.
“There’s always a number of things. You’ve got to find the one or two that are really important and I think we are getting closer to that. We’re not quite there yet but we will get closer to it. We’ll be much better against Wales, for sure.”
Eddie Jones is an Umbro ambassador. For more information visit: www.umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram
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