Brain specialists, roadblocks, departing coaches and knee ligaments – Why the darkest days of the Jones regime are coming to an end
From Grand Slam, whitewash tours and domestic club domination to the current supposed doomsday climate, it seems the Eddie Jones regime has hit its darkest days yet over the course of the last week. However, Crashball Rugby Editor Ali Stokes believes these troubling times are soon to be eradicated.
By July 2016, former Japan Head Coach Eddie Jones had guided England to the pinnacle of success outside of a World Cup year. An unbeaten, triple trophy-winning Six Nations campaign, a three-nil tour down under and all while five out of eight Champions Cup pool qualifiers were English.
Snapping back to reality, England have suffered their worst Six Nations campaign in half a century. Four losses on the bounce (including a Barbarians game),
rows over the in-camp injury rate, the loss of a defence coach and the employment of a ‘brain specialist’ to address England’s inability to adapt. The list of challenges facing the English set-up has become of significant length, something the fans and media are all too aware of. We have hit the darkest days in the Jones era, but it seems to me this will likely be the lowest slump under the England boss.
Sun on the horizon
The national side is in a hole, there is no doubt about that, but I’m expecting to see these rainy days concluded in South Africa this June. Whether you attribute England’s failures to injuries, poor coaching, player fatigue or all of the above, there has been a shift in the winds of late.
Openside conundrum solved
The lack of an out-and-out openside, or at least an injury free option, has plagued English rugby for many years and arguably resulted in England’s breakdown issues in the Six Nations. Fortunately, we now see the figure of Tom Curry, the Sale Sharks openside ready to stake his claim on the seven jersey and bring much-needed mobility, handling skills and breakdown work to England’s backrow. With Chris Robshaw shoehorned in at openside and second row Courtney Lawes shifted onto the blindside, England were at a loss for all the skills Curry will supply.
In addition to these inadequacies within the team, Exeter Chiefs’ flyer Sam Simmonds was forced to fill a Billy Vunipola-type role at number eight, with no significant change in game plan to suit the relatively lightweight, lightning-fast strike runner. In short, injuries to Curry, Vunipola, Nathan Hughes and Sam Underhill significantly affected the balance of England’s pack, with insubstantial changes in style of play to accommodate the replacements.
Has Jones seen the light?
Jones is a notoriously bullish character and while this is a positive in many ways in a top national role, it has unfortunately proved detrimental to England’s success. The shifting of Elliot Daly and Anthony Watson to fullback, Danny Cipriani’s inclusion, the selection of three opensides in the touring squad (to South Africa) and the employment of an attack coach – if only temporary – are all signs pointing to a belated tweak in the Australian’s game plan. Further cementing this is the return to fitness of both Billy Vunipola and Nathan Hughes, both of whom featured for their side’s final season fixtures. While the two barnstorming number eights may not be quite fit enough to return to their best, they are closer than they have been for some time and could prove to be game changers for England.
When you add the call-up of Brad Shields, the guaranteed starting berth of either Kyle Sinckler or Harry Williams at tighthead and Dan Robson’s bench role, England’s dynamic going forward could be unrecognisable by the end of the summer. Caveated by the fact that events must transpire in a favourable fashion for England, we cannot deny there are clear signs things are looking up.
If it’s good enough for the All Blacks…
Many, including myself at first, have been concerned at the appointment of Vincent Walsh, a professor of brain research at University College London, who has been brought in on a temporary basis in an attempt to cure the aforementioned inability to adapt to adverse situations. However, while the issue itself is of a concern, this appointment should be met with more positive vibes than negative.
England are not alone in the tactic of employing a sports psychologist. When looking to become the best, the benchmark always has been and always will be New Zealand, who are without fail the leaders in the Rugby Union world. The All Blacks have been utilising the skills of mental skills specialist Gilbert Enoka for the last 18 years. It seems England are simply late to the party and while the lack of adaptability is a standout issue, it is not incurable. Fans should find solace in the fact Jones has clearly brought in one of the world leaders in this field.
Gilbert was recommended to the England boss by the former Great Britain swimming coach, Bill Sweetenham, who suggested that an additional method in which Jones could hit optimal levels with his side was by recruiting the learning specialist.
Wise-man-tel us how to attack
Further promising signs for England is the recruitment of Scott Wisemantel as England’s attack coach for the duration of the South African tour. Known to Jones during stints with Australia and Japan, Wisemantel has plenty of history with his fellow Australian, having stepped in to lead the Brave Blossoms in 2013 when Jones suffered a stroke.
A fresh set of eyes ready to bring a new dimension to England’s attack could go down very well. With the likes of Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski, Jonny May and Elliot Daly in the same backline, Wisemantel will not be short of top of the range apparatus to work with.
It seems – to me at least - that things are on the up for England. Be sure to pay close attention to the side’s changes over the next six months. If all goes as expected, this may be the turning point that sees significant failure fuel a return to title contention in 2019.
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