Four years ago I wrote my first article for this blog about the quiet changes taking place in the England camp following a series of off-field incidents at the World Cup in New Zealand. The article cautioned Scotland not to expect the same old “arrogant” England due to the calming influence of then interim coach Stuart Lancaster.
Four years on and Lancaster’s velvet revolution, which aimed to instil “working class values” in England players, is over. The feeling south of the border is that Lancaster’s approach was too linked to his background as a teacher. Any player who was perceived to have stepped out of line was cast out of the squad and those remaining were given strict instructions as to exactly how they should play. This, it is said, led to some questionable decisions on the pitch with players unable to think for themselves.
So, four years later and England are coming off the back of another disappointing World Cup.
However this time the embarrassment was played out on the pitch in the full glare of the Twickenham floodlights rather than the back room of a shady bar. Lancaster has fallen on his sword and a new revolution is taking place. Only this one is more of a bloodless coup than Lancaster’s velvet revolution. Lancaster insisted his England had dropped their arrogant ways. Eddie Jones, the man behind the coup, has encouraged his players to embrace them once again.
Jones has spent the past few weeks deflecting attention away from his players through a series of deliberately antagonistic statements in a bid to rile the opposition. Scotland, on the surface at least, are refusing to play along. Jones though has unfinished business with Scotland. Following Japan’s infamous victory over the Springboks the Brave Blossoms faced Scotland with turnaround of only 4 days. Before the match Jones insisted this would not faze his players as they were much fitter than their Scottish counterparts. After the game he was singing from a different hymn sheet.
Jones’s Japan played open, running rugby and certainly gave Scotland cause for concern during the first half. The opening try from a driving maul from a line out had Scotland supporters fearing the worst but a second half glut of tries put the game beyond Japan. However, the final score masked long periods of Japanese pressure on the Scottish try line and were it not for some handling errors the final result could have been very different.
Unlike Lancaster, Jones trusts and backs his players to make their own decisions. This, and this alone, led to Japan’s last minute try against the Springboks. Most teams faced with a similar choice would have taken the three points and a draw. Japan went for broke.
However it seems extremely unlikely that any coach, even one with Jones’s credentials, can make sweeping changes to a team’s playbook overnight and expect instant results. Vern Cotter was fortunate to have had some influence over Scott Johnson’s temporary spell in charge, allowing for a smoother transition. New players were already blooded and Johnson had tried, with limited success, to get the team playing a more expansive game.
Jones comes in cold and will have had little time to make any drastic changes to the way England play. For all his talk of getting England to play a more open and aggressive style of rugby it will take time to bed in. Vern Cotter’s vision for Scotland was almost identical to the style of rugby Glasgow were already playing when he arrived on these shores. With the over half the squad coming from the Warriors’ camp the transition to the new coach’s vision would not have been that difficult. Jones’s squad comes from nine separate teams. It won’t be until the autumn that we really get to see what Eddie Jones’s England will look like.
In the meantime all Eddie Jones has is words. He talks a good game but asking some of the England team to go out and get in the faces of the opposition without any means of controlling that aggression is asking for trouble. Such tactics may have worked in days gone by but Scotland have learned the hard way that passion and emotion only gets you so far in modern rugby.
Scotland have said they will not be targeting Dylan Hartley. However they may not have to. Eddie Jones has told his captain to “play like Tarzan” and given his reaction to Andrew Cotter’s questions at the Six Nations launch its clear he’s already wound up tighter than the plot of a David Lynch film. Asking a player who has spent over a year of his career serving suspensions to get in the faces of the opposition is never going to end well.
The talk from the Scotland camp is that they are deaf to Jones’s patter and focussed on their own game. However it seems likely that some of it will filter through to the Scottish players such is Jones’s omnipresence in the media at the moment. Jones has even apologised to Vern Cotter for suggesting Scotland were favourites – going so far as offering to put that in a letter.
“Everything we do is about winning,” says Jones. “Everything we say is about winning. Every time we talk to the media, we are trying to find a way to win.”
However if Scotland are truly focussed on their own game then Jones’s words may cause more damage to his own team than their intended targets.