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Premiership must shoulder some blame for England slump under Eddie Jones

The Guardian logo The Guardian 24/06/2018 Paul Rees
Eddie Jones, the England head coach looks on during the third test match between South Africa and England at Newlands Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. © David Rogers/Getty Images Eddie Jones, the England head coach looks on during the third test match between South Africa and England at Newlands Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa.

When Sir Clive Woodward resigned as England’s head coach in September 2004, less than a year after leading the country to World Cup success, he said in an emotional press conference that he had become overwhelmed by the perpetual need to compromise with the Premiership clubs over the release and treatment of players who were becoming burned out.

England have had five head coaches since then and some are calling for a sixth, with Eddie Jones’s lustre dulled by a run of XXXX(update after match) successive defeats. Many of the problems that Woodward highlighted then remain, even if two years after his departure an agreement over elite players was signed by Twickenham and Premiership Rugby.

Think of Wales from the end of the 1980s when, in a desperate attempt to recapture lost glory, a coach was hired for what he stood for one year and jettisoned for the same reason the next; Ireland had a similar revolving door policy. Now, though, the two Celtic nations are a model of continuity. They are both on their third full-time head coach since Woodward resigned and stand immediately behind New Zealand in the world rankings, having long stopped looking for a rugby magician or repairs that served only to mask structural decay.

Danny Cipriani of England passes the ball during the third test match between South Africa and England at Newlands Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa. © David Rogers/Getty Images Danny Cipriani of England passes the ball during the third test match between South Africa and England at Newlands Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Cape Town, South Africa.

England’s record this year before Saturday’s final Test in Cape Town was two victories and five defeats in full internationals, a similar ratio to the cross-border matches Premiership clubs played in last season’s European Champions Cup: 12 successes in 35 games.

Why the surprise? Because England won a grand slam in Jones’s first few months in charge, a time when the Celts were trying to develop depth after chastening World Cup campaigns and France were still trying to navigate a way out of their own misery?

England and France are blessed and cursed by their club systems, which generate considerably more interest than they did in the amateur era, and, more so in the case of the Premiership, develop talent through the academy system. But players, even under the agreement, get caught between their employers and their country. Where Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the major southern nations are able to manage players outside international periods, Jones and his France counterpart, Jacques Brunel, cannot. They have no input into training methods, player positions or rest periods.

Billy Vunipola of England looks to break through the South Africa defence during the second test match between South Africa and England on June 16, 2018 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. © Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images Billy Vunipola of England looks to break through the South Africa defence during the second test match between South Africa and England on June 16, 2018 in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The advantage England and France have in terms of player numbers, and finance, is negated by the ability of other tier-one nations to manage the workloads of players better. It is not a question of blame: the clubs, who more than 20 years after the creation of the Premiership are as far away from making a collective profit as they were in 1997, have to put their businesses first or face going bust. It means, however, that they are not as receptive to prevailing trends as other countries where the leading two strands of the professional game are calibrated.

Test rugby has speeded up in the past two years but where Super Rugby and the Pro 14 are able to adapt quickly, with national coaches having an influence, Jones and Brunel can only watch their clubs from a distance. The game in the Premiership and the Top 14 is appreciably slower than it is at Test and Champions Cup level.

Much was made of England’s collapse to South Africa last weekend after scoring 12 early points, seven days after they had blown a 21-point lead, but in February they quickly went 12-0 up against Wales at Twickenham and failed to score in the final hour, fortunate not to lose, after being overrun at the breakdown.

England captain Owen Farrell takes his frustrations out on referee Romain Poite in the second Test against South Africa. © Gerhard Steenkamp/REX/Shutterstock England captain Owen Farrell takes his frustrations out on referee Romain Poite in the second Test against South Africa.

What comes first in England: the national side or the Premiership? The answer depends on whom one asks. Since Jones succeeded Stuart Lancaster he has focused only on the areas where he has influence, which is when he has his players under the terms of the agreement and World Rugby regulations.

Beyond that, he cedes authority, saying he cannot sway how Premiership matches are refereed or whether players are given an extended rest after a summer tour. He stays on his own side of the fence, which is why he barks loudly when someone such as the Bath owner Bruce Craig hops over to complain about the coach’s training methods, which are designed to adjust players to a quicker pace.

Jones has picked a number of wildcards in his 30 months in charge, constantly looking out for players he feels offer something different, not least initiative. While the Premiership produces players of high quality, few leaders have emerged this decade. When Woodward’s England won the World Cup 15 years ago, the team was stuffed with players who did not need to be told what to do. Most of them were products of the amateur era, when self-help prevailed, but everything is laid on now for emerging players, who come into the senior game unused to fending for themselves.

Handre Pollard of South Africa passes the ball during the first test between and South Africa and England at Ellis Park on June 9, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa © David Rogers/Getty Images Handre Pollard of South Africa passes the ball during the first test between and South Africa and England at Ellis Park on June 9, 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa

And so when trouble struck again in Bloemfontein, the captain, Owen Farrell, was left barking his frustration to the referee, Romain Poite, a former policeman who had no desire to be lectured in the law.

The partnership between the Premiership clubs and country should be about far more than the release of players and handsome recompense. Jones has made, and will continue to make, mistakes as he struggles to refine crude material. Discipline has become an issue, given terse post-match interviews infected the last World Cup campaign, but there have been confrontations with fans and Jones alluded to players being distracted by commercial issues during this year’s Six Nations campaign. Selection has become a problem with so many players missing, not least in the second row, with Nick Isiekwe pulled after 30 minutes in the first Test when the breakdown had again become an issue.

Most of the problems are systemic and expecting someone to do better in the long term under the same circumstances is to believe in miracles. What Woodward said 14 years ago – “You cannot play the amount of rugby the players are and expect to beat New Zealand and South Africa” – rings as true today.

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