Monday Maul: Where has it all gone right for England?

Jun 27, 2016

“I’ve always said there is talent in England, there is talent here. The job is to get that talent to perform consistently. It is a matter of practise and a matter of the environment we create. All we’ve tried to do is get consistency: consistency in attitude, consistency in preparation and then you get consistency of performance.” — Eddie Jones, England head coach

In February, a few days before England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland, we asked why the national side endured such a dismal spell following the 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph. We asked whether everything was doom and gloom, if England needed to rip up the system and start again and if Jones could turn the side into a world-class outfit. Just under five months on and England have responded with a Six Nations title, a Grand Slam and their first series win on Australian soil. So just four months on, we now ask: Are England back on track?

Eddie Jones has made a big impact on the form of Billy Vunipola. David Rogers/Getty Images

Then: ‘The talent vacuum’
Now: ‘Getting the talent working’

From the start, Jones said England had the players to be a world force. It was more a matter of how to get every inch of potential, power and effort out of them. He’s had different approaches player to player. With Billy Vunipola it has been a case of telling him every day he’ll be the best player in the world and taking his self-confidence to another level. The decision to give him one of the three vice-captaincy roles alongside Owen Farrell and Mike Brown was a masterstroke. With others he has used the stick, saying that whatever they’d done before was nowhere near good enough.

And then there’s James Haskell, arguably England’s player of the Australia series having dominated the first two Tests and been sorely missed when absent through injury for the third Test. Every morning Jones gives Haskell a green smoothie, playing up to his machismo persona, but also a sign that he is buying into whatever Haskell does to get himself in the right frame of mind. Haskell doesn’t know what’s in the smoothie bar kale and broccoli, but it makes him feel wanted. Under the previous regime, Haskell says he felt like a “dirty secret”. Now he is indispensable.

Coupled with the individual approach is building a team dynamic with winning at its core. It has been player-led, putting the emphasis on the senior players to moderate in-house discipline. Jones’ end goal is to have the squad, rather than coaching staff, running training on occasion.

Central to that has been the appointment of Dylan Hartley. When Hartley was given the captaincy, there were detractors due to his lengthy rap sheet but he was always going to be a great skipper. He personifies everything this England bunch are about — hungry and determined to put right wrongs and never take anything for granted, as Haskell explains.

“I love the coaching staff, the boys, how Dylan runs the team and my role in the team,” says Haskell. “With this environment we enjoy each other’s company, we have a laugh like other England teams and every time we meet up there are more young players champing at the bit to take your place. I feel satisfied and happy but very hungry, eager and with one eye looking over my shoulder.”

“I honestly think we get our confidence from the way we train.”

George Ford

While Hartley has been fantastic as captain, Jones also made sure that former skipper Chris Robshaw has been made to feel loved. The night prior to his 50th cap, the squad paid tribute to his efforts and he responded with a Man of the Match performance. The approach of encouragement has also had a big impact on Ben Youngs: “Eddie has been unbelievable at installing confidence in this squad.”

Then there have been the changes to training. Sessions are shorter, sharper and more defined under Jones, leaving players exhausted but better than when they started.

“I honestly think we get our confidence from the way we train,” George Ford says. “The intensity we train at, the standards that we drive, the standards that come from the top from the coaches and then the senior players who drives those standards day in, day out.”

Bar Hartley, the only big difference in Jones’ first-choice starting XV so far has been the emergence of Maro Itoje. Itoje is a born-winner, having not lost a single game he’s started this year. He has been the one who has captured the attention of the locals as John Eales told ESPN: “For a guy who’s had such a short Test career so far, you’d think he’s going to have a big influence on the international stage for some time.”

Around the fringes are inexperienced players like Ellis Genge, Kyle Sinckler, Henry Slade and Ben Te’o. The case of Te’o is a curious one as he was widely expected to force his way into contention for the Test team but never made a matchday 23. The other three, though, are in their early twenties, would have learned a lot from the tour and will continue their development. Jones is not afraid to bring in left-field picks and made a point of singing the praises of the victorious Under-20 side, saying some of them may come into the reckoning for a spot in the November tour while Ospreys back-row Sam Underhill will continue to be on England’s radar.

Despite the remarkable nine-match winning run, Jones will never take any praise — something he sees as a danger to any team’s success. Instead, Jones turns plaudits on to the players, distancing himself from their Grand Slam and series win and attributing the success to the squad-led team.

Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick have transformed England’s defence and set-piece game. (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Then: ‘The coaching carousel’
Now: ‘Adding external expertise’

It was a case of out with the old and in with the new when Jones took over. Gone were those associated with the World Cup and instead he brought in fresh blood in the backroom staff. Paul Gustard, Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley are now the full-time crew with other voices drafted in at timely moments.

Gustard’s impact on the defence was laid bare in the second Test as he used Dale Wimbrow’s poem to inspire the team to put in a remarkable performance of sheer ferocity and will to hold out Australia.

“He [Gustard] made me feel good before the game,” Billy Vunipola said. “The poem had a lot of relevance; if the poem had made no sense, then I’d have probably told him to pull up. But the poem is closely aligned to us as a team and what we want to achieve.”

Then there’s the set piece, the cornerstone of Jones’ master plan. Borthwick has shored up the lineout and is making an impact on the players. “Steve’s expertise is very helpful for me and the squad as a whole,” was Joe Launchbury’s assessment. Hatley only started work before the tour on the front-row but will take some credit for Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole’s impressive tours.

“Glen Ella coming in has given us an extra edge and one-on-one time with a backs coach.”

Jack Nowell

Away from the bread and butter of the full-time trio, Jones has used his contacts book to bring in external figures to shake things up and bring fresh perspective. Jonny Wilkinson has helped the kickers, George Smith has spent some time focusing on the breakdown, Graham Dawe worked with the hookers while Will Greenwood spent time in camp in Brighton.

And then on Australian soil he pinched two of their own to help England’s cause. Former Wallaby Glen Ella was drafted in to help England’s backs and made a big impact.

“It’s important to get another side of things,” Jack Nowell says of Ella’s introduction. “Him coming in has given us an extra edge and given us some one-on-one time with a backs coach which is good.”

Rugby league great Andrew Johns was also present at training in Coogee to talk to the half-backs about their game which thrilled Owen Farrell. Jones has formed stern foundations in the backroom staff but these little touches have kept the dynamic fresh and created an environment focused on learning.

Owen Farrell’s points from the tee have been a cornerstone of England’s pragmatic approach. David Rogers/Getty Images

Then: ‘Finding a winning game plan’
Now: ‘Gameplan: finding or creating space’

Jones’ basis for his England side is the set piece, attacking off turnover ball and essentially playing intelligent rugby. One Wallaby said his experiences of playing England in this series was like facing Saracens in the Aviva Premiership: a team born on those principles with a fierce defence and an ability to punish any mistakes. Farrell’s boot has been key here in keeping the scoreboard ticking over and kicking is another key aspect of Jones’ theory.

“Good rugby to me is finding or creating space,” Jones said. “When you’ve got the ball, that’s what you’ve got to do. You can do that through three ways: running, passing or kicking. That’s the aim of good rugby. People want to see good rugby.

“If you are kicking with a purpose, for me that is as attractive as running or passing with a purpose. That’s why we’ve got three modes of being able to move the ball.”

“The decision to shift James Haskell to openside was a masterstroke.”

Bob Dwyer

Position wise, the decision to shift Haskell to openside was a “masterstroke”, in the view of World Cup-winning Australia coach Bob Dwyer, while Jones has not been afraid to make “gut instinct” changes if things haven’t gone to plan. Luther Burrell and Teimana Harrison both experienced being hauled off barely half an hour into a Test — Burrell in the first, Harrison in the third.

Dwyer, who coached Jones at Randwick, has seen other areas of improvement. “England have been better at the fundamentals of the game,” Dwyer told ESPN. “Though there wasn’t a significant dominance in the set plays, England were better there in the scrum, lineout and kick-off receipts.

“England were also much better in the realignment in support play. Their catch-pass lines of running are more accurate, their support lines better and they are also standing a little closer together which means their running lines are straighter by necessity but overall they’ve just been a bit better.”

While those aspects have developed, Dwyer believes England’s “attack needs to improve” and Jones agrees: “We have massive areas we need to develop: the consistency of our lineout, the breakdown and we need to develop our attack.”

England are undefeated under their new head coach Eddie Jones. WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Then: Eddie Jones — saviour of English rugby?
Now: Eddie Jones — saviour of English rugby?

The good thing for England is there is room to improve. Fresh from their 44-40 win in Sydney and Jones was hammering home the need for England to continue growing, developing and learning. It is all geared towards success in the 2019 World Cup.

“We are proud of our efforts, brave, courageous effort, but we’ve got to get better,” is Jones’ message and it is a credo that will be carried forward.

While he will never take praise, the way he has taken the pressure off the England players has been masterful as has his man-management. For the first time since the Woodward era, losing just isn’t in the squad’s DNA. It has been some turnaround.

Up next is the autumn series at Twickenham, as England look to keep their unbeaten run going against South Africa, Fiji, Argentina and finally Australia again on December 3. Nothing else but improvement and winning will do.

“You can never take your foot off the pedal,” Jones says. “As soon as you take it off, you get weak. And we can’t afford to get weak, because we want to be the No. 1 team in the world, and we are miles away from the All Blacks.”

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