It is a weekend of anniversaries: 150 years since England and Scotland first contested a game of rugby and exactly five years since Eddie Jones kicked off his tenure as England’s head coach. If much has changed since 1871, there has also been progress since 6 February 2016 when Jones embarked down the winding, unpredictable road familiar to all elite coaching gurus.
A World Cup final, three Six Nations titles, one grand slam, the Autumn Nations Cup: given the shell-shocked state of English rugby in the aftermath of a premature World Cup exit, he can definitely claim to have steered the Rugby Football Union out of a tight corner.
After 59 Tests Jones has an 80% winning record – W47 D1 L11 – and an eventful highlights reel. From the flooring of New Zealand in Yokohama in 2019 to being abused en route back from Scotland in 2018, there have been more peaks and troughs than Bass Strait with a strong southerly blowing.
And yet, as he awaits his 60th Test in charge, Jones and his team still sit almost exactly where Clive Woodward’s England did 20 years ago. The England side of that era were also talented and hardened by a painful World Cup defeat against South Africa 16 months earlier: they had a tough pack, high ambitions and a collective appetite to improve on the Six Nations title that, despite a deflating loss in Scotland, they had won the previous year.
And what happened? In the remaining 15 championship games before they lifted the Webb Ellis Cup they won 13 and lost twice. Instead of grinding through the gears in 2001, they smashed opponents to all parts: 44 points in Cardiff, 80 points at home against Italy, 43 against Scotland and 48 against France. The Ireland game was delayed until autumn by a foot and mouth outbreak but despite tripping at the last yet again, England managed 29 tries, still a record.
By the time they arrived at the 2003 World Cup they also knew that, if necessary, they could play it any way: fast or slow, tight or wide. The Six Nations was still important, of course, but England’s deliberate refusal to settle merely for European oneupmanship became their trademark. By expanding their horizons, with the great Brian Ashton as their backs coach, they also captured the public imagination to an unparalleled degree.
Of course it can be unfair to compare eras too closely: if England’s “heritage” kit for this fixture is a throwback, what about those baggy BT Cellnet shirts which made skinny backs like Iain Balshaw resemble mobile pipe cleaners? Defensive organisation – as well as kit tailoring – has tightened up substantially over the past two decades. The weather can often interfere and this year Scotland head to Twickenham with half a sniff of a first Calcutta Cup away win since 1983.
But the broader point still stands on the eve of the 2021 championship: there comes a time when a potentially world-beating side needs to venture outside its tactical comfort zone. Jones is always hungry for fresh knowledge but, instinctively, he is more of a marginal gains man than a misty-eyed disciple of rugby heaven. Back in 2016, after England’s first win under him in a dour contest, he stood beneath the Murrayfield stands and explained why pragmatism would forever be his watchword. “If we had tossed the ball around and got beat 17-16, no one would say: ‘Oh, they played wonderful rugby.’ I’ve been through all that. I coached the Brumbies in 2000, we were the best team in Super Rugby, had the ball for 70% of the final and got beat 20-19. No one congratulated us on that performance. It’s all about winning.”
No yawning England supporter can say they weren’t warned. Jones did not get where he is today by worrying about style, artistic merit or any such tripe. The old schoolteacher in him just wants his pupils to pass their bloody exams rather than query the wider curriculum. Which is fine until the time comes to take their university finals. Is there enough in there beyond hard graft and basic sentence construction to gain stellar marks as opposed to a Desmond (2:2)? Will they reflect in later life that, tactically, the team did everything to become the best version of themselves? It could be argued, then, that Jones’s defining coaching years start this weekend. Now 61, can he bear to loosen the pragmatic shackles enough to allow this England team to express itself more freely, particularly in attack? It is less a case of England kicking too much – every Test side needs a kicking game – than why, when and how well they do it. When sides match them physically or the breakdown goes awry, can they still create enough elsewhere?
Might it be possible, too, to generate not just respect but greater public love as well? Jones’s waspish response to complaints about the manner of England’s sudden-death victory against France in December – “You’re being totally disrespectful to the players” – suggested he is personally not terribly bothered. “Would we like to run the ball more?” he asked, rhetorically. “Possibly, yes, but not if we’re not going to win games of rugby.”
Yet how will England really know how high they can soar unless they risk the occasional setback in trying? As Bristol are demonstrating, a he-who-dares-wins approach can be equally fruitful. It is not as if England are incapable of raising the Six Nations bar, as their 32-20 opening weekend victory in Dublin two years ago underlined. How sharp Jones’s England looked that day, with and without the ball. “I do not think I have seen a game when our opponents have had so many dominant tackles and carried so physically,” reflected the admiring Irish coach, Joe Schmidt.
Yet within a few weeks they were losing in Wales and conceding 38 second-half points at home against Scotland. For all that brilliance against the All Blacks, last year’s Six Nations was defined by their loss to France in Paris. Rugby is neither an art nor a science but the best teams strike an enticing balance. Scotland will be competitive but England, even without five experienced forwards and any fans to roar them on, remain masters of their own championship destiny. If they struggle to expand their game, starting this weekend, it will not be much of an anniversary party.