November always divides opinion. If you’re given to lyrical fancy, deepest autumn is the golden hour of the calendar, what one of America’s foremost, fireside poets, William Cullen Bryant, called ‘the year’s last and loveliest smile’. But for the more prosaic among us, it’s a cheerless, moribund month of decay and despondency when a withered landscape is laid bare to its bones. And unfortunately for England despairing rugby supporters, hibernation or migration is unlikely to be a viable option.
But as they totter into December, at least they all know who to blame for England’s abysmal autumn given Eddie Jones ‘fessed up not once but twice; the lack of clarity against Argentina and the abject failure to land a shot against South Africa were both, said the Head Coach, ‘entirely my fault’. Of course, seasoned Eddieologists will readily recognise this familiar ‘mea culpa’ tactic – defuse and disarm has long been his stock defence when his team are under heavy, incoming fire – his problem being that the more he tells everyone it’s his fault, the more likely it is that folk will begin to think he’s absolutely right.
Finer analytical minds than mine can dissect the grisly details of England’s angst of an autumn but in the broader context there’s clearly a dark, deep-rooted disconnection here between team and terrace, a genuine concern for Eddie Jones if you’re of the opinion that – ultimately in sport – it’s not CEOs who sack Head Coaches but supporters. Only the players would know whether Jones would survive a vote of no-confidence in the dressing-room – and the hearsay on this topic hasn’t always been healthy – but, out in the shires, the opinion polls are toxic and influential voices have become a swelling chorus of consternation.
Jeremy Guscott tweeted post-South Africa that he couldn’t remember the last time he felt so frustrated watching an England rugby team play and called for ‘a serious reboot’; Will Greenwood described the same performance as ‘one of the most soul-destroying, demoralising games I’ve ever been to at Twickenham … a side devoid and short of ideas, a side scared of its own shadow … it’s tough, tough to defend.’ Look, seat cushions and catcalls raining down from the one-and- ninepennies speak volumes in themselves but when the keepers of the flame are dismally shaking their heads in public, you’re in a ditch.
The trouble is that what it says on the tin appears to bear no relation to what’s actually in it. Eddie insisted last week that his team would be competitive against the Springbok set-piece: instead, a scrum of seasoned, English oak was splintered into matchwood. It’s also Jones who – rightly – insists that Test Match rugby is all about consistency, yet both players and coaches continue to enter and leave the dressing-room via what appears to be a revolving door and in terms of results in 2022, England have gone LWWLLLWWLWDL, a run which includes no wins whatsoever against the four sides above them in the World Rankings, three of whom they played at Twickenham.
There’s more. Jones assures an increasingly fretful nation that he’s on the right track; pain will lead to gain, there’ll be jam tomorrow, just-bear-with-me-here-folks and all will be revealed in the sunlit uplands. It’s Brexit in boots, if you like, except there ain’t many left who do. And with good reason. Clearly, you need to break a few eggs to make an omelette but if all you can see on the kitchen table are fragments of shell, a bleeding yolk and a tired thread of white, you’re entitled to ask what’s become of the omelette.
There’s a precedent for England twisting a mere ten months out from a World Cup – the luckless Andy Robinson in 2006 – but if you’re judging this on recent form, the smart money will be on the RFU sticking.
All of which leaves the RFU in a cleft stick largely of their own making or, more accurately, in yet another cleft stick largely of their own making. As ever, a review panel will be convened and, as ever, no one will be told how many or who will be sitting round the table other than it’ll include ‘board and executive members along with independent, former players and coaches … [who] … will hold a series of meetings’.
Again, you struggle to see how this obscurity washes with the English rugby public who, once more, are being asked to trust the processes when many have long thought that the processes are deeply flawed; specifically, that Eddie Jones has had far too free a hand and that the RFU should’ve grasped the nettle sooner. Yes, there’s a precedent for England twisting a mere ten months out from a World Cup – the luckless Andy Robinson in 2006 – but if you’re judging this on recent form, the smart money will be on the RFU sticking. In psychological terms, it’s known as cognitive dissonance.
But hang on a moment. Back in 2016, Jones himself proved what could done in the twinkle of an eye; thirteen wins off the reel including a Six Nations’ Grand Slam, a glorious dollop of whitewash on the Summer Tour to Australia and an Autumn Sweep to round it all off. So if one, mighty breath of fresh air from outside the tent can instantly blow away all the cobwebs, why can’t another? It’d be ironic, to say the very least, if Jones’ roaring, show-stopping start to his England career were to prove the clinching argument for drawing a line under it now.
And there are others who’ve worked similar wonders. Think of Michael Cheika with the Wallabies at the 2015 World Cup or Rassie Erasmus, who went one better than Cheika with South Africa heading towards 2019 and, most recently, Wayne Smith’s galvanising effect on the Black Ferns, six months that turned the women’s game in New Zealand completely on its axis with a joyous infusion of energy and enthusiasm that was as infectious as a good sneeze. It can be done and it has been.
While it’s easy enough for the keyboard crepe-hangers to keep clicking on #JonesOut, exactly how many are thinking rationally – or even at all – about #WhoComesIn? Half of Wales is currently on the phone to Warren Gatland.
Which means the $64,000 questions we’re left with here are threefold. One, does the RFU have the nuts to, effectively, admit to its own mistake these past two years in backing the ‘wrong’ horse? Two, does it have the finances to pay off the outgoing staff and buy itself a brand new boot room? And three, and most importantly of all, if it does decide a new broom’s required, who should it be and how might they get hold of him?
Because while it’s easy enough for the keyboard crepe- hangers to keep clicking on #JonesOut, exactly how many are thinking rationally – or even at all – about #WhoComesIn? Half of Wales is currently on the phone to Warren Gatland; just how much room is left on his voicemail? Is there anyone in-house who can do a Brian Ashton and pick up the baton? Could Scott Robertson be persuaded to abandon his – figurative – vigil outside NZR’s headquarters in Wellington and ride to England’s emotional rescue? The likely answers to these pertinent questions would probably be ‘bugger all’, ‘no’ and ‘not in a month of Sundays’. So what’s a board to do?
Look, Eddie Jones is as sharp a cookie as you’ll find in any biscuit barrel; two clever by three-quarters on occasions but as fine a rugby mind as there is. Moreover, his record at World Cups isn’t exactly threadbare and the draw in 2023 keeps England away from Ireland, France, New Zealand and South Africa until the semi-finals at which point all previous bets are off. You could – just about – see a way through to the sharp end of the tournament.
But the England rugby public – let’s call a spade a spade here – appears to be deeply pissed off with the direction its team is taking; indeed, rarely in any autumn have 80,000 supporters made so little noise or has silence spoken so loudly. The atmosphere has often been funereal, the booing last Saturday visceral and while the brickbats may bounce off the teak-tough Eddie Jones, you sense – and here’s the absolute crux of the whole thing – that the players are feeling compromised and confused.
Is the RFU listening to its constituencies or is there still some room left under the far corner of the carpet to sweep the problem away? England are about to find out.
The RFU is promising to speak to them in its review; more importantly, it needs to speak for them when it announces its conclusions. Yes, England can stumble on to the World Cup, fingers crossed and upper lips stiffened in some kind of Micawberish hope that something will turn up. Alternatively, it can finally draw a line under Eddie, thank him for his time, wish him well in the USA and bring in someone who can fill the players’ buckets with a gallon or two of self-confidence and chutzpah. Is the RFU listening to its constituencies or is there still some room left under the far corner of the carpet to sweep the problem away? England are about to find out.