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The end of the Eddie Jones era

By Ben Smith
(Photos by David Rogers and Alex Davidson - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Eddie Jones seven-year run as head coach will be heralded as a great period for England rugby, with three Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam and a World Cup final appearance in 2019.

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The excellence of the England side through 2016-2020 is the legacy Jones will leave, the period where all of the aforementioned success was captured. An 18-Test winning streak spoke magnitudes of greatness.

He leaves with an exceptional winning rate of 74 per cent over his tenure. Jones deserves a healthy amount of credit for leading them through this prosperous period, but it was not all down to Eddie’s methods. The success goes beyond one head coach.

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Despite the 2015 calamity at the home World Cup, Jones’ arrival was the perfect time to take the reins of English rugby. It looked bleak at the time, but below the surface England were about to enjoy riches and Jones must have known that when he took up the position.

From 2011 to 2015, the England under-20 (U20) side reached four finals at the World Championships and won two titles at the age grade level. Over the same period, they took home four of five possible U20 Six Nations titles.

A golden generation was on the precipice of breaking through to international rugby, with players like Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly, George Ford, Mako Vunipola from the first crop in 2011.

Jack Nowell, Anthony Watson, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie all were champions in the 2013 U20 side, the 2014 champions included Maro Itoje. From 2016 to 2018 the England U20 side made three more finals and won another World Championship title in 2016.

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Across the 2010s decade they made seven finals and won three World Rugby U20 championships.

England were always going to be in a healthy position for the 2019 Rugby World Cup based on the success of their U20 programme. The system was producing the world’s best or near world’s best age grade talent for an entire decade.

Most of this generation would peak or be close to peaking with the right mix of experience and athleticism at the 2019 World Cup.

That pipeline of talent flowed into the Premiership where two juggernauts grew, Exeter Chiefs and Saracens, the latter becoming a dominant European force that captured three crowns in the Champions Cup before the salary cap scandal tore them apart.

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The England side was built on the back of a strong Saracens core with sprinklings of other generational talent around them, many already world champions at age grade level.

They were always going to be successful to a degree with a coach of the calibre of Eddie Jones, it was just a question of how much silverware would they fill the cupboards with when the sun was shining and whether they take home the trophy wife of trophies, the Rugby World Cup.

England’s slide over the last two years has coincided with the rise of France and Ireland as the world’s best two teams, who coincidently started to take the titles away from England a few years ago at U20 level.

The tide was turning underneath England and Jones, while his generation of stars started hitting the twilight years post-2019.

France’s U20 side won two straight World Championship titles in 2018 and 2019, which is still the last edition of the tournament played since the pandemic.

Closer to home in Europe the Six Nations U20 tournament has continued, where France have won one title and been runners-up four times over the last five U20 Six Nations.

Ireland have captured two Grand Slam Six Nations titles at this level in the last five years, in 2019 and 2022, and would have potentially had a third in 2020 but the tournament was cancelled.

They were three from three at the time, having already secured a triple crown over Scotland, Wales and England. Only France stood in the way of another U20 Six Nations title.

England managed to win an U20 Six Nations title in 2021, the first since 2017, but over the last five year period it has been all about Ireland and France.

Which to no surprise, is now playing out at the top level as France became a Grand Slam-winning side in 2022 and put together a perfect Test season. Ireland have beaten everyone except France in the last two years.

Eddie Jones is the gravitational force that pulls in media attention and spits out endless headlines, becoming larger than the side itself at times. It is great entertainment for the game, who needs characters like Jones.

But he gets too much blame when they lose and too much credit when they win. He was sitting at the top of perhaps the greatest conveyor belt of talent in England Rugby’s history over the decade leading up to the 2019 World Cup.

Many believe Jones deserved to see things out through to the 2023 World Cup with his multi-year ‘plan’ still in progress, which is a fair conclusion.

There might have been one last ‘squeeze’ from England’s 2010s generation with the favourable draw, but that looked increasingly unlikely with five wins from 12 tests this year.

But it’s not just about winning three knockout games every four years for the RFU, it’s about everything else in between as well. The writing has been on the wall for England for two years.

The bigger picture is England have lost footing with Ireland and France in Europe, and no ‘grand plan’ from Jones for the 2023 World Cup would change that fact.

England will be fine without Jones once they rebuild the pipeline to produce champion U20 teams again, and Jones will be fine without England when he finds another high performing development system to coach in.

 

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