There has been speculation over Eddie Jones’ position as England head coach for a long time, but no-one thought that he would ever leave due to his expected payout being so huge, with many believing that the Rugby Football Union (RFU) quite literally could not afford to replace him. However, on 6 December 2022, after seven years in the role, the unthinkable did happen, with the former Japan and Australia head coach told that his services were no longer required.
In terms of results, the decision to sack Jones has come as no surprise to anyone, with fans expecting the team to kick on after reaching the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, but seeing those hopes very quickly fade away in the period of time since as results and performances have dwindled. As things stand, England as a team look a shadow of where they were when they reached that final, and that is what has forced the RFU’s hand.
However, with only nine months to go until the next World Cup gets underway in France, have they made the right decision and indeed at the right time? That is what most England fans have spent the past 24 hours wondering.
What has gone wrong on the field?
Put simply, everything. The players have looked low on confidence, they haven’t appeared to believe in the game plans that have been put before them, and results have therefore not been what fans and officials hoped for or expected.
In 2022, which is statistically their worst calendar year since 2008, they have only won five of their 12 Test matches, with three of those defeats seeing them finish third in this year’s Six Nations tournament after a poor campaign, whilst they only picked up one win from four matches in the recently completed Autumn internationals, which came against a Japan side who weren’t playing well on the day.
The performances have been just as unimpressive, with the team making the same mistakes match after match, often leading to penalties being racked up against them, and they have been unable to hold onto leads once they have been attained.
Against Argentina in their opening Autumn match, they led 16-12 at the break, having played OK in the first half, but ended up losing the match by a single point. Against New Zealand, in their third match, they conceded two early tries through poor defensive work and looked really unsure of what they were being asked to do throughout the game, with them 17-3 down at half-time, and only late scores from Bath tighthead Will Stuart and Leicester Tigers full-back Freddie Steward ensured that they avoided chalking up yet another defeat.
However, it was their final match of the series, against South Africa, where fans began to really turn on Jones and the team. Quite honestly, it looked like men against boys at times, with the Springboks showing more desire, more individual quality and more belief in what they were looking to do, and they managed to capitalise on so many England mistakes in order to build their lead.
Their first try, for example, came after Harlequins fly-half Marcus Smith opted to kick the ball forwards rather than run with it, when, for his club, he would have undoubtedly tried to carry the ball forwards and use his immense pace and trickery to break through the opposing defensive line.
Once his clearance was caught by Kurt-Lee Arendse, it was easy for the South Africa winger to run up the field, combine with ex-Wasps full-back Willie Le Roux and place the ball over the try line. Far, far too easy.
Team selection issues
The 15 players on the field can’t take all the blame for their poor performances though, because a fair few of their issues have come through some of them not being used in their best positions.
For example, Sale Sharks flanker Tom Curry has been utilised by Jones as a number 8, covering for Billy Vunipola when the Saracens back rower hasn’t been available, and no-one minds coaches experimenting and trying things out when they are down on options. However, Jones has never had that problem, as all three of Sam Simmonds, Alex Dombrandt and Zach Mercer were available at the time and had been playing regularly and well for their clubs, doing all that they could to prove that they were deserving of a call-up to the national squad. The fans could see their quality – Jones never seemed to share the same views.
Owen Farrell too has been used more recently as an inside centre, with the aim being that Smith would start at standoff and have the support from the England captain behind him, but that partnership hasn’t borne the fruit that many hoped it would as it has often left England short of defensive cover once they lose the ball.
Against South Africa, England didn’t score a try until the 71st minute, and the fact that it came through one of their replacements, Henry Slade, is telling. The Exeter Chiefs centre is known for his agile nature and ability to run at speed in order to make territorial gains, as well as his generally strong defensive work at the back, and fans might have been wondering why he didn’t start that game, given that he would have given Smith someone to aim for with his box kicks. However, again, strange selections meant that that didn’t happen.
England have started to include Dombrandt and Simmonds in their more recent squads, with both having chances to shine, but Simmonds has been used mainly as a flanker when he has played. As a result, his effectiveness on the pitch has been limited, because he hasn’t been able to get on the ball early and make darting runs that catch opposing defenders out, as has been one of his key strengths during his time in Devon.
Mercer, meanwhile, gave up on waiting for a call-up and opted to move abroad, with him spending this season and the last at Top 14 side Montpellier (who have also added Simmonds and hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie ahead of next season), so good English players that fans have been desperate to see given chances in the national setup have been continuously ignored, again leading to questions over Jones’ selection processes.
Who will come next?
With Jones’ time at England now officially up, there has been plenty of speculation over who will be his permanent successor. In the short-term, former Leicester Tigers and Edinburgh boss Richard Cockerill, who has been England’s forwards coach since September 2021, will take charge, but it is expected that there will be an appointment announced in the near future.
The person who looks to be the frontrunner for the role is Jones’ former assistant and current Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick, who has overseen huge improvements since taking over at Welford Road and who led the club to their first English Premiership title in nine years in the summer. If he were appointed, there are strong rumours that he could take current Tigers defence coach Kevin Sinfield and head of physical performance Aled Walters with him to the national setup, so appointing him might require a hefty payout by the RFU to the East Midlands giants.
There are other names that have been linked to the position as well, with current Saracens director of rugby (DoR) Mark McCall, Exeter DoR Rob Baxter and Crusaders boss Scott Robertson all seen as potential candidates, whilst Warren Gatland was also considered to be a contender until he was reappointed as Wales head coach earlier this week, as was former Ireland fly-half Ronan O’Gara before he signed a new contract at La Rochelle. However, Borthwick is undoubtedly the favourite and the one that almost everyone is expecting to take over.
Eddie Jones’ dismissal will undoubtedly divide England fans. There will be those who will look back on the last year and the years before and who will argue that results have not been good enough, with a change required in order to awaken the team from their slumber. There will also be those who will look ahead and point out that the World Cup is just nine months away, meaning that any change made now would give the new head coach very little time to get their ideas across ahead of the showpiece event in France, and therefore it is not a good idea to sack him now.
However, what everyone can agree on is that, like him or not, Jones was a success as England coach. The statistics prove that, with him securing victories in his first 17 matches in charge, delivering three Six Nations titles (one of which was a Grand Slam) and returning a 73% win rate (the highest of any England head coach in history).
He also has a good record in the World Cup during his career, having led Australia to an unlikely World Cup final in 2003 (which they lost to England), coached Japan to a famous win against South Africa in 2015 and taken England to the 2019 final, so there are some who will argue that he should have been given the chance to lead England in France next September.
However, it is the RFU who have the final say and they have decided that enough is enough, with the boos that followed their most recent loss at Twickenham convincing them that it was time to act. Whether that was the right call or not remains to be seen.