Sir Graham Henry always used to say that the single most important part of a head coach’s job was selection. Nothing else came close. Picking the right characters and the right skill-sets for the team to evolve. More than any other factor in top-level rugby, selection shows whether a coach has a sound grip on the big picture, on where he or she wants the team to go.
Shortly before his sacking by the RFU, England coach Eddie Jones spoke with The Telegraph and reinforced the principle of stable selection. Here is a smorgasbord of snippets, describing the process for a modern international coach:
“Selection is always a combination of your intuition, which is your ‘art’, and your gut feeling, and analytics – the information that’s available, which is [now] immense. The way you use that is your decision-maker. I tend to agree [with ex-England cricket selector Ed Smith] that it’s an art, but also a science.
“The best players are not necessarily the best player in that position. We’re picking a team to play together and players have to have complementary skills, and there are complementary personalities to make a team that is so interdependent. The beauty of rugby is that it’s such an interdependent game.
“You have to be very resolute on picking the players with the information that you know is right. Sometimes the fans and the media can love a player, and he is a really good player, but he’s not the right fit [for the team profile].
“I like self-assured players who come into an environment and adapt quickly. If they’re programmed or robotic players, then it sometimes takes them longer to adapt.
“When you meet [other] coaches, the main question is always around how you handle selection. How do you handle the non-selected? The difficult blokes? How do you tell them they are in or out? That’s a constant theme, and it’s the biggest part of your job.”
Since the 2019 World Cup, the England selection process had turned against Eddie Jones. It became the most damaging stick which unsympathetic sections of the media used to beat him out of the bushes. By the time he left in early January 2023, Eddie Jones was out in the open and had been running for his life for well over 18 months.
It is hard to argue with some of the statistics. Despite owning the highest win record of any England coach, Eddie Jones burned through no less than 112 different players in his seven-year tenure. 66 of those players won fewer than 10 caps and there were 76 debutants. That is a high rate of turnover in 54 games.
The willingness to ‘experiment then discard’ over such a short cycle does bring associated problems. It does not instil confidence among players or supporters when the process is so public and overt. Does the coach have a solid grip on the big picture? How do the players at his disposal fit into his vision?
The case of the brothers Arnold is an especially interesting one. Rory played 73 times for the Brumbies to Richie’s 10, and he has won 32 international caps while Richie has yet to debut for the Wallabies at the same age.
The main question as the second Eddie Jones reign of ‘hire-and-fire’ begins in Australia is therefore whether he can he build a simple vision, a clarity of selection with both the players and the paying public – no hidden agendas, no secret plans yet-to-be-revealed.
His preliminary Wallaby squad announcement contained a goodly amount of potential ‘burners’. Tate McDermott and Noah Lolesio were excluded despite being the obvious back-ups to Nic White and a fit Quade Cooper; Jordan Uelese was picked despite sitting behind Alex Mafi on the pine in Melbourne, and Rory Arnold’s uncapped twin brother Richie Arnold was selected ahead of him in the second row.
The case of the brothers Arnold is an especially interesting one. Rory played 73 times for the Brumbies to Richie’s 10, and he has won 32 international caps while Richie has yet to debut for the Wallabies at the same age. When he was quizzed on the selection, Eddie responded as follows:
“He [Richie] is a massively tough player. Stade Toulouse build their pack around Richie Arnold.
“He’s a young player by playing experience and training so I feel like he’s one of those players that have a lot of development in him, a lot of growth in him.”
The article immediately fell into line with the perception that Les Rouges et Noirs ‘build their pack around Richie Arnold’, but it is an exaggeration. The Toulousain front five includes established French internationals like Cyrille Baille, Julien Marchand, Dorian Aldegheri and one of the stars of the recent Six Nations in Thibault Flament – at least when Flament is playing second row. It also features young giant Emmanuel Meafou, who has passed up a Wallaby invitation in order to qualify by residency for his adopted homeland, and wear the cockerel on his chest in 2024.
The Flaments and Meafous of this world will probably be playing international rugby long after Richie Arnold has retired from the game; whatever his perceived quality, Richie does not appear in the top ten of any of the relevant stats for his position in the Top 14 after 21 rounds of the competition.
Jones went on to poke a bit of fun at Rory’s decision to stay in Japan after his team had been suspended from league play:
“I think he’s working on the factory line at Hino, isn’t he?
“I think he’s making those trucks because he’s not playing Rugby at the moment. To get selected, you have to be playing Rugby.
‘We don’t pick players that make Hino trucks.”
Eddie may be trying to light a fire under Rory Arnold but in Wallabies terms, it is hard to see a happy ending for either brother in the media situation which has now been created around them.
One of the other areas of principal interest in Eddie’s first Wallabies squad announcement was in the halves, where Ben Donaldson was promoted ahead of Noah Lolesio at 10; and Tate McDermott was surprisingly omitted in favour of Ryan Lonergan, who plays kohai (junior man) to Nic White’s senpai (senior man) in Canberra.
All three took the field at the weekend in a rainstorm at Suncorp Stadium, in the Reds’ heavy 52-24 loss to the Brumbies. The game provided a connoisseur’s insight into the bits and pieces that go into making a good scrumhalf in the professional game.
McDermott is tough defender and a very talented breaker around the fringes. On the negative side of the slate, he can be too slow around the base and his passing technique needs refinement. Both were in evident in last November’s tour match between Australia and Scotland.
Tate tends to set quite high and close to the ruck, so that he is open to disruption; he sets his feet too obviously, so that attacking play can only go in one direction:
The foot positioning tips off the fact that play is clearly going left on next phase, and McDermott is high enough to be vulnerable to pressure applied by a hovering Brumbies’ forward, prop James Slipper.
Although his passing has shown definite signs of improvement under the tutelage of Will Genia, McDermott still tends to ‘stand and deliver’, especially on left-to-right movements. The combination of an early set of the feet and a lift on the ball before it is passed, buys the defence a few invaluable moments to read the target area ahead of time:
Under pressure, Tate McDermott tends to look for running opportunities around the edges of the ruck. This can make him by turns a very dangerous, unpredictable attacker, and a handbrake on phase play:
In the first instance, McDermott resolves hesitation by making a scoot around the fringe. The run is positive but it meant that Queensland spent the next couple of phases without a scrum-half to pass the ball, and the sequence finished with an ineffective box-kick when McDermott eventually recycled himself back into play.
The second example (from a very similar starting picture) illustrates the kind of breaking ability that no other No 9 in Australia can hope to match. The Queensland halfback beats both of the Brumbies second-rowers, then two backs – his opposite number Nic White, and wing Andy Muirhead from the backfield – for good measure on an outstanding run to the line.
Neither of the Brumbies half-backs who were selected to Eddie Jones’ first Wallabies squad have that kind of line-busting ability, but they are probably more effective than McDermott playing within their structures. Nic White tends to keep his feet more level on approach to the ruck, which means more switches of direction and more uncertainty for the defence:
The previous couple of phases had gone from left to right, but White sees the opportunity to switch-hit with a quick snipe into the yawning gap on the left of the tackle.
The flexibility of attitude was evident in one of the Brumbies’ second-half scores:
Play goes from left to right and back again to keep the defence honest, before White spots the chance to drop a smartly-weighted kick into an empty Reds backfield. Keeping your feet level keeps your options open.
Ryan Lonergan may also have gotten the nod over Tate McDermott because of his ability to play more effectively within a structure by use of the pass and kick. He can whip the ball away off his left hand at speeds Tate can only dream about:
Selection, selection. More than any other single factor, it probably did it for Eddie Jones’ chances of leading England into the 2023 Rugby World Cup. As one of his fiercest critics, Sir Clive Woodward commented at the end of Jones’ tenure, “The turnover of players and staff was highly unsettling. The thing [Steve] Borthwick must get right is selection. It is obvious, but Jones got it badly wrong. He wasn’t good at it.”
Too harsh by half, but there are issues associated with a high speed of player turnover. Only Eddie Jones will truly know why he picked Richie Arnold ahead of his twin brother, but whatever the reason it does not create a scenario with real upside.
The omission of Tate McDermott from the squad is also hard to explain. As I concluded in the article written after the match against Scotland, “The one-two punch principle applies between the opening-whistle starter and the finisher from the bench, and Australia re-discovered that value in the coupling of Tate McDermott and Nic White at scrum-half. Tate the running threat, ‘Whitey’ the strategist and passer; McDermott fixing the inside defence early in the phase count, White upping the tempo as the phases mount.”
That combination was something Eddie Jones could have inherited with profit from his predecessor Dave Rennie. As he explained in his podcast analysis of the art of selection, you look for players with complementary qualities, and White and McDermott have that synergy already. You do not need to be constantly reinventing the wheel, or burning through to make progress. Stability is enough.