Much has been made of the RFU’s appointment of Australian Eddie Jones to the position of England’s first team manager after a disastrous World Cup saw the side fail to progress from the pool stages. The 55 year old has said that he is eager to build upon a ‘great legacy’ left by his predecessor, Stuart Lancaster. Jones claims that he sees plenty of cause for optimism going forward in recognising that ‘at least 70 per cent’ of the 2015 squad should go on to feature in Japan 2019. “It’s a very exciting opportunity,” Jones said. “England have won two of the last three under-20s World Cups so there’s great talent out there.
“For me, it’s a great opportunity to coach these players. The last World Cup side in 2015, at least 70 per cent of those guys can go into 2019. It’s a great legacy that Lancaster has left, there’s an opportunity to build something here.”
The honeymoon shall however be short lived if the Australian fails to take home the Calcutta Cup, a match which will mark England’s opening game of this year’s Six Nations tournament. Jones, in his squad selection, must be wary of walking the fine line between the notions of ‘the next game is the only one which counts’ and ‘everything is done with a view to 2019′. His first challenge will therefore be to sufficiently distance himself from his predecessor by recognising the talents of Englishmen playing overseas (something which Lancaster fell afoul of) and placing a greater emphasis on form rather than class. There is no question that he already possesses a fine knowledge of English rugby, but it will what he sees with his own eyes in the weeks leading up to the tournament which will define the makeup of the squad. For instance, Mitch Lees’ (Exeter’s lock) and Petrus Du Plessis’ (Saracen’s tighthead) strong performances in recent matches should have placed them firmly in contention for the EPS squad.
The captaincy is also a point of contention, with Robshaw attracting criticism so far this season after leading a side who were first to leave a tournament they were hosting. Many are calling for a replacement in the bulky form of Dylan Hartley. However, the Northampton forward has suffered from successive injury problems this season and upon his return, has been kept out the side by the in-form Mike Haywood. So who else can be consdiered to take up the mantle? Joe Launchbury has been branded ‘too nice’ and Mike Brown at full back will likely not even be fit for the tournament. Who leads the side will certainly end up being a controversial decision whatever happens.
Another feature Jones will be desperate to remedy is the perception that England are ‘too soft’ a side. The Australian would like to see a return to the old fashioned, unloved England who opponents dreaded. This may well be why there is an indication that Hartley will be selected as captain, but other candidates for various positions will no doubt be under threat. Centrally, we are left with few options. With Henry Slade injured and Manu Tuilagi still likely to be unable to play internationally until at least March it seems that the only hope lies in rewarding the form of Elliot Daly and Jonathan Joseph, although moving Owen Farrell from fly half may be safer option. The fly half debate also rages on, with the coveted no.10 shirt up for grabs. Owen Farrell, whose unbeaten run with Saracens came to an abrupt end against Harlequins, still remains the obvious choice, although George Ford and Danny Cipriani should also be considered serious contenders.
Ultimately, Jones will judged upon whether he can replicate the brand of high tempo, no comprising rugby which his Japan side employed so successfully at the World Cup. For all their plaudits, the Cherry Blossoms still failed to progress from the pool stage, but thrilled us all with their shocking win over South Africa. It was though their attractive brand of rugby which won them so many fans. The Six Nations will be the platform upon which Jones must begin to exemplify that.