After the undoubted disappointments of 2015 England rugby fans have some very good reasons to be cheerful as the new year begins.
For the first time in nearly 10 years the Rugby Football Union has put an experienced head coach in charge of the England team. Martin Johnson and Stuart Lancaster (and to some extent even Brian Ashton) were appointed based on merits other than their head coach skills in the hope that they would learn on the job, but there is no substitute for time at the helm, and Eddie Jones has plenty. I look forward to seeing his plans.
The Australian is famous for his forensic attention to detail and in this sense his forwards coach, Steve Borthwick, is cut from the same cloth. I am always wary about assuming the qualities that made someone shine on the field will make them a great coach but as a player the former England second-row took lineout analysis to a new level. He was not the most mobile or physically imposing of forwards but his sharp mind has never been in doubt and that is what Jones has selected him for. With a guiding hand from the head coach I’m genuinely excited to watch his progress.
As defence coach Paul Gustard’s achievements with Saracens at the forefront of European rugby are plain to see. This is a man who knows what it takes to get a group galvanised around defence. His biggest challenge, though, will be to take players who have been selected for their attacking ability, players who may not naturally put defence first, and to fit them into his system.
The one appointment that has yet to be finalised is attack coach but if what we hear is correct and Northampton’s Alex King is Jones’s final pick then it will be a shrewd one. King would be the counter-balance to the other two’s attention to the smallest details. Laid-back, creative and more open about allowing input and opinion from others, King would be an important influence in preventing the environment becoming oppressive and keeping the group travelling together.
King knows Dylan Hartley well as a Northampton colleague and if rumours are true we are about to see the biggest shock of Jones’s short reign: the game’s biggest pantomime villain becoming the captain of his country. No one would seek to condone some of Hartley’s more stupid actions that have led to his undistinguished disciplinary record but it is important to keep some perspective around what it takes to play at the highest level. This is an extreme sport and those who are right at the pinnacle are often extreme individuals.
If we want a hard-nosed England team we must accept it will come with some roughness around the edges. The challenge for Jones and his coaches will be in channelling Hartley’s energy in the right way, and keeping him – just – on the right side of the referees. Jim Mallinder at Northampton has seen Hartley as worth sticking with, and I am glad Jones appears to agree.
Aside from a few words in Jones’s ear about his club-mate Hartley, King would also have the happy task of harnessing the abundance of talent England have in the centres. The No12 and No13 shirts haunted Lancaster from the moment he stated in his opening few weeks in charge that he wanted a second distributor, until it ended in the selection of Sam Burgess to face Wales in the World Cup.
Lancaster selected 10 players to start at centre, in 15 combinations, and among them there is plenty of quality. This is especially so at No13, where one of the players of 2015 in Jonathan Joseph faces a battle to hold on to his shirt. Wasps’ Elliot Daly is in the form of his career and he is a genuine outside-centre with pace to go on the outside, the ability to pick off a mismatch and, crucially as this is his difference versus Joseph, the ability to turn a two on two into a two on one. With Manu Tuilagi due back for Leicester and Ben Te’o looking forward to getting back in the Premiership mix next season, please let this be the year we can admire England’s centre play again.
Exeter’s Henry Slade hopes to recover from his broken leg in time for the summer tour of Australia and his skills would give Jones another option to consider for his midfield. Rob Baxter’s handling of Slade and a clutch of young England-qualified players at Exeter has seen the side become one of the Premiership’s best and he increasingly looks like the next England coach elect.
Jones’s successor will not come from among England’s coaches as they are unit coaches who will not have the necessary skills and experience to take the lead role. If the RFU wants to avoid the mess it made in ending Lancaster’s regime, they must not wait until 2019 to cast around for whoever is successful at that time. They should recognise Baxter’s qualities, talk to him and start building a plan around what he thinks his shortcomings at that level might be so he can be ready to move into international coaching. The talent and intellect is here in our own game and it is time to start recognising that and harnessing it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010