With Eddie Jones signing a new contract with England this week to keep him at the helm until the 2023 Rugby World Cup, there has been a lot of reflection over his past four years in charge.
The Daily Mail’s Will Kelleher has provided a succinct summary on Twitter of some of the key stats of Jones’ reign, particularly in terms of the players he has selected, and the XV most players most picked in each position:
EDDIE’S MOST PICKED XV
15 Brown (24 starts)
14 Watson (19)
13 Joseph (25)
12 Farrell (23)
11 May (33)
10 Ford (41)
9 Youngs (39)
1 M Vunipola (24)
2 Hartley (28)
3 Cole (28)
4 Launchbury (24)
5 Kruis (25)
6 Robshaw (18)
7 Underhill (14)
8 B Vunipola (29)
It is worth noting that this list does not necessarily mean these were Jones’ most picked players. After all, Jamie George, Courtney Lawes, Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje were all one of Jones’ top eight most capped players under him.
However, their positional versatility (Daly across the back three, and Itoje and Lawes at blindside flanker as well as No.4 and No.5) means they did not start solidly in the same position, or in George’s case, he was often used from the bench. Kelleher also provided information on the most capped players:
Who're his favs?
TOP 10 MOST CAPS UNDER EDDIE (54 TESTS)
George Ford – 52
Owen Farrell – 48
Ben Youngs – 47
Jamie George – 46
Courtney Lawes – 43
Elliot Daly – 43
Dan Cole- 39
Maro Itoje – 38
Jonny May – 37
Joe Launchbury – 37#statcave
— Will Kelleher (@willgkelleher) April 2, 2020
Nevertheless, this XV still helps unearth the strength of this England team, as well as some flaws. The first thing that is most noticeable is that many of these players played in the RWC final last year. Eight players started in the final, while George Kruis and Dan Cole both came off the bench.
Additionally, Joe Launchbury and Jonathan Joseph both were in the RWC squad in Japan. Given his time spent on the sidelines, Manu Tuilagi would not make this list, but is undeniably a vital cog in Jones’ team.
The three members of this XV that did not travel to Japan were Mike Brown, Chris Robshaw and Dylan Hartley, who are the eldest members of this squad. All three have served Jones well throughout his tenure, particularly in creating a bridge between the Stuart Lancaster era before, but the tournament may have been a step too far. Furthermore, Hartley would have been at the RWC if it was not for his injury woes.
Adding the likes of Daly, Itoje, Lawes and George to that XV shows that the Australian was building towards something during the four-year cycle and it was no fluke that they came so close to winning. The coach faced some criticism at times, but he had an outline of what he wanted his team to look like, and this XV shows he stuck to it. While there were still selection debates leading up to the final, it was amongst players that Jones had already embedded into the squad.
Kelleher’s XV also illuminates some of England’s weaknesses over the past four years, and indeed much longer. The lack of a natural openside has plagued England for years, and the inability to outgun the opposition at the breakdown was one of the major contributors to England’s annus horribilis in 2018. It is perhaps no surprise that the least capped player in this XV is Sam Underhill at No.7. The Bath man looks to be the incumbent openside in white now, but this team tells a tale of the journey Jones has been on to find someone suited to the role, although Tom Curry is a viable option as well.
This XV provided by Kelleher also highlights another problem that Jones has encountered, which is the over-reliance on Billy Vunipola. It may surprise some that a player who only played four Tests during 2017 and 2018 because of a slew of injuries still started the most matches for England in the forwards. This of course does not mean he was the most capped player in the pack, as we have already seen, but it does show that when he is available, it is more than likely that he will start.
That in itself is not necessarily a problem because he is arguably England’s most important player, and fundamental to gaining any momentum; it is no coincidence that Vunipola barely played during England’s troublesome 2018. What this stat does show is that England were never able to find a suitable replacement for him to allow Jones to rotate.
Nathan Hughes vied with the Saracen for the No.8 shirt, but ultimately fell off the pace and it culminated in Jones only taking Billy as the specialist No.8 to Japan.
This same problem has reared its head this year in Vunipola’s absence during the Six Nations, where Curry has been deployed at the back of the scrum. He grew into the role as the Championship developed, but one of England’s main criticisms was this lack of penetration that Vunipola is so often trusted to provide.
Conversely, this team also shows the abundance of locks that Jones has at his disposal, especially as the two in Kelleher’s team, Kruis and Launchbury, did not actually win more caps than Itoje and Lawes over four years. This is also one of the most compelling reasons as to why Jones, alongside Matt Proudfoot, is opting for a 6-2 split on the bench.
Ultimately, this squad shows that Jones did not simply stumble into the RWC final, and while he may still not know what his best XV is, he has a pool of experienced players to choose from.
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