Eddie Jones has often courted controversy as coach of the England rugby union team, but it is his style of play rather than any comments to the press that is attracting criticism now.
England won the Autumn Nations Cup at the weekend with a win over a seriously under-strength French team. The side played a style of rugby that was almost deliberately as boring as possible, though.
Fly-half George Ford seemed to repress all of his natural instincts to kick the ball at every opportunity, even when there was a chance to do something much more creative with it. The English only managed to beat a seriously depleted French squad in extra time too, relying on Owen Farrell’s inconsistent goal kicking to bring them victory.
Tellingly, France’s defence looked rock solid and was able to deal with anything that the English tried to throw at it. England’s lack of enterprise may well have contributed to this, but the influence of former rugby league great Shaun Edwards on the French structure was clearly apparent.
Maybe George Ford and Owen Farrell, the creative nexus of the England backline and both players with family links to rugby league, could benefit from some of the influence of Edwards. Both looked very limited in both thought and deed. The way in which France fly-half Matthieu Jalibert played provided a sharp contrast to the style adopted by the English.
France were actually in the lead for most of the game too. Jalibert showed skill and inventiveness throughout the game, shifting the focal point of the French attack in a way that made the performances of Ford and Farrell look flat-footed in comparison. The Bordeaux-Begles man will surely have felt acute disappointment at ending up on the losing side after such a performance.
The 2000 fans allowed in the ground will certainly have enjoyed watching him more than the home stars. The style adopted by England also seems to contrast with that of many teams in the Gallagher Premiership, such as Wasps or Exeter.
England looked embarrassingly one-dimensional at times, kicking away good ball when slightly more adventurous options were available. Jones maintains that winning is the most important thing, not the way in which his team does it, but fans can only stomach a dull team for so long. A record of 15 wins in their last 17 games suggests that Jones is doing something right, though.
That record is why the England coach responded so bullishly post-match to criticisms of his team, branding negative observations as “childish”. He also viewed the criticisms of his team’s style of play as “disrespectful” to his players. Some might say that taking such a defensive stance is proof that he sees the problems with the style of play himself clearly enough.
But it is telling that you if you asked many observers which team from Saturday’s game looked more likely to win the next Rugby World Cup, most would probably say France. The French looked like a team that was trying to develop players and formulate a winning (and entertaining) strategy. They were also missing around 25 top players.
The England team was under a certain amount of pressure to deliver a trophy at the weekend, and the hope is that they will now be able to relax a little having won some silverware in a one-off final. Maybe a fear of failure is what has inspired this turgid and uninspiring style of play, at least in part.
England may win trophies this way, but they will win few friends. Eddie Jones probably doesn’t care too much about that, but he should be careful. Participation across all sports in England continues to decline – it becomes much harder to attract youngsters to your sport when the national team plays in such a limited and limiting way.
Of course, if England win the next World Cup then that question might seem academic. Surely youngsters will want to play a sport at which England are world champions? If that sport is seen as a boring game dominated by a team that plays a boring style, though, the answer isn’t so obvious.
Jones and his team are not responsible, of course, for the structure and laws of rugby union providing strong incentives for teams to play in a dull way. They are in an entertainment industry, though. Sometimes, it seems that coaches like Jones forget this. England fans will hope he remembers soon.
Wining trophies is great, but the greatest sides go down in history for much more than just the silverware they collected – they also create great memories of glory. It would be a shame if this England team win trophies but end up being forgotten anyway.
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