Eddie Jones officially got his feet under the weighty table of English rugby this week, after negotiating the small problem of getting the correct visa. Is it a similarly routine problem to return English rugby to the top of northern hemisphere or will it prove a little more intractable?
Jones has already made a couple of statements over which many in the elite game ought to muse. The comment that he expects his hookers to hook was a welcome reminder that he appreciates one almost lost art. He has followed this up by making it plain that the development of skills is an absolute priority over immediate results.
To many the latter statement will be seen as yet another variation of 'we are at a development stage' which is used to mask the fact that a team are not actually improving or winning. Whether fans accept it, Jones is right. England's players have to develop their skill sets before and after they become internationals. If they do not, whatever difference he can make as a coach, will necessarily be circumscribed.
That Jones is not English and is being paid, in rugby terms, a big salary, will mean he is expected to produce almost instant improvement and winning the Six Nations will be an absolute minimum for many England fans.
There must be some criteria against which Jones is judged but the Six Nations test is one that can be left for the two years before the next World Cup. What must happen, irrespective of results, is that we see a clear pattern of play developing and tangible progress being made towards its fulfilment. We must keep firmly in mind the fact that the southern hemisphere will not stand still; its teams will be improving from their levels of 2015. It is no good creating a team that can top the domestic international table if it does not have the potential to win on the bigger stage of a World Cup.
See that as defeatist if you want but this time round England have to get it right. For the first time since 2003 the demographics are right to produce a team where crucial decision-makers can arrive at a World Cup with 70 or 80 caps, augmented by a raft of players around the 40-cap mark and a smattering of exciting newcomers. If Jones gets this process wrong England could spend another decade trying to rebalance its squad.
When Jones goes around the Premiership grounds he will see a number of clubs still obsessed with applying for penalties at the scrum – witness the Bath v Northampton game on Saturday. He will see many teams attempting to play with greater ambition; Exeter, Harlequins, Wasps, Sale and so on. What he will also see is that though many players display the requisite dexterity and nous, they do so only sporadically. When he picks his squad Jones has to be true to his word and favour players who are showing the desire to embrace his philosophy, though this does not mean players can be excused deficiencies in their primary roles.
In some units Jones has a number of good options. The back three positions all have two or three challengers for starting roles and the same at scrum-half. At blindside and No 8 there are several players with a variety of styles that will allow Jones to vary his selection according to need. What is still missing is any real competition at openside. When you look back at England's previous occupants of this shirt; Peter Winterbottom, Gary Rees, Neil Back, Lewis Moody and more, the current dearth of talent is even more baffling and I confess to having no ready remedy to the problem.
Perhaps the most egregious failing of his immediate predecessors has been the inability to settle the 10, 12, 13 positions and Henry Slade's unfortunate injury over the weekend has made Jones' job of solving this conundrum much more difficult. Jones has lost the chance to experiment with a new half-back partnership and centre pairing in which Slade would surely have figured. As George Ford is currently not on top form Jones has to look at Owen Farrell, which in turn would prevent him using Farrell as a second receiver at 12.
As a concluding point, Jones could do worse than lobby the RFU to alter its laudable plan to invest £50 million ($103m) in 100 new artificial pitches over the next four years. That initiative should include, at a cost basis at least, that all Premiership clubs have hybrid pitches. When you see players labouring on heavy pitches like the Recreation Ground at Bath, the introduction of permanently better surfaces is a must.
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