Rees-Zammit in Eddie Jones’s sights but free-flowing future is bigger vision
| England rugby union team
Eddie Jones has capped 12 wingers in his five years as England’s head coach, but he had no joy when he tapped up a 13th, who has scored three tries in two matches in this year’s Six Nations
his first, and become the most talked about player of the tournament. Wales’s Louis Rees-Zammit started against Ireland in the opening round only because Liam Williams and Josh Adams were suspended, but his try in Cardiff that afternoon, touching the ball down while part of his body was in the air and over the touchline, cemented his place in the side.
“I gave him a ring,” says Jones. “I had heard he was very Welsh and wanted to play for Wales, but said that if he was interested, we would be. He had to do five years to qualify on residency and a young guy like him is not going to sit around that long [Rees-Zammit joined Gloucester’s academy in 2018]. I wished him good luck and am pleased he is doing well. I just hope he does not do too well against us on Saturday.”
The 20-year-old is set to be up against his clubmate Jonny May against England in Cardiff, although Wales under their previous head coach, Warren Gatland, had a habit of switching wings without warning.
After an Autumn Nations Cup when a sense of adventure went the same way as the late afternoon light, the Six Nations has been illuminated by the ability of the two Gloucester wings, the trickery of the France scrum-half, Antoine Dupont, the vision of the Wales centre Nick Tompkins and the bravado of Scotland’s Finn Russell.
Italy have also been adventurous but still lack a foundation while Ireland, who dominated possession against Wales and France, have lacked ideas and paid for their predictability in tight matches. England only once threatened to score a try against Scotland, and that after a charge-down, and although they hit Italy for six, their passing often lacked precision.
Mike Brown, a full-back who was also picked on the wing by Jones, has said the head coach did not like it when he was challenged by any of his squad and questioned whether the Australian’s coaching style was a barrier to players having a tactical input. Pointing out that an encounter with Italy is a free hit because the result is never likely to be an issue, he said the challenge for England was to have the nerve to retain the attacking mindset in Cardiff, urging someone to have the courage to push back against the coach.
“How do you know players have not been challenging me?” says Jones when asked about Brown’s observations, which were made in a newspaper column. “We have a shared responsibility and there is a forum for players to speak up. It would be hard for me to say we have a dictatorial system, which is what Mike Brown is alluding to. He is entitled to his opinion and I am sure he gets well paid for it.”
Jones did acknowledge the game became coach-driven as it settled into the professional era. “When I first started coaching professionally, everything was led by the players,” he said. “They were educated men who studied at university and most of them had worked. It was a very robust environment, but it became very coach-directed in the next 15 years: players missed those life experiences and were happy for the coach to be in charge.
“As the game has become more difficult and there is far more decision-making than ever before, there is a strong move towards more shared responsibility and players are better educated that way. It has almost gone full circle and so it was a surprising comment by Mike, although he will not be paid to write that we are a good democratic side.”
Jones, who was being interviewed in his role as an Umbro ambassador, was in sparkling form. From his early days with the Brumbies, he has always been worth listening to: thoughtful, provocative at times, mischievous, besotted with the game and eager to enhance his repertoire.
In the past couple of years, he has deflected questions more, a reaction perhaps to being in England, where lips are encouraged to be buttoned, rather than Australia where plain speaking is expected.
“English rugby generally is fairly organised and structured, but in the next World Cup there will probably be more unstructured play and the ball will be in play more,” says Jones. “Why? We know World Rugby is run by New Zealand. They have all the power and dictate what laws we have, all about making the game faster and more like Super Rugby.
“We have to start preparing for that now and it was a factor behind appointing Simon Amor [the backs coach] because we have to be able to play that sort of rugby if it becomes standard fare.”
Wales would not mind as much. They go into the weekend unbeaten thanks to moments of brilliance, both collective and individual, rather than control. Their head coach, Wayne Pivac, has a decision to make: does he go for broke and pick Liam Williams at full-back with Adams and Rees-Zammit on the wings and Callum Sheedy at fly-half while retaining Tompkins, his best passer, in midfield when George North and Jonathan Davies are available again?
Starting Sheedy instead of Dan Biggar would mean going without a recognised goal-kicker, as Wales did at Twickenham in 1988 when Paul Thorburn was replaced at full-back by a fly-half, Tony Clement, in an attempt by the coach, Tony Gray, to convince the players he meant it when he said he wanted them to play with ambition. It worked.
England will not be gung-ho and Jones said Owen Farrell would retain the captaincy and “present a better version of himself” than he did in the opening fortnight.
Wales are chasing the triple crown, but the champions are still in control of their own destiny and the three rounds of the tournament played without crowds have resulted in six away victories compared with three by the home side.
England will be greeted by the sound of silence rather than the hostility they are used to on the road and after muted displays at Twickenham they can be expected to make a noise.