At some stage in the next fortnight Eddie Jones will sit down for dinner with the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, Bill Sweeney, to discuss the future. There will be no shortage of agenda items, not least the fall-out from a tempestuous Anglo-Welsh contest which at times was more like rollerball than rugby. England may have collected a triple crown but, not for the first time, the hosts won few awards for grace or diplomacy.
Does it matter how a national team behaves as long as it wins? Jones has never been over-burdened by such considerations but over the coming months the RFU has a fundamental decision to make. Does it stick with the devil it knows and renew its vows with a man increasingly threatening José Mourinho’s position as the country’s prickliest coach? Or does it take a more holistic view, decide a less Marmite personality will improve the squad’s 2023 World Cup prospects and tell Jones his contract will not be renewed when it expires next year?
This truncated Six Nations campaign – as yet it remains to be seen when England’s final game in Italy will take place – has yielded evidence to support both arguments. On the one hand Jones has unquestionably made England a tougher, fitter team; on the other his side underperformed horribly in Paris and owe Scotland a large beer for breathing fresh life into the Six Nations title race.
Of further concern to his employers, unquestionably, will be the rancour and antagonism that is now a recurring theme in the Jones era. Publicly criticising Saturday’s referee, Ben O’Keeffe, for showing Manu Tuilagi a justifiable red card not only sent a dismal message to younger players but to his own senior squad. Is it entirely coincidental that England, as underlined by the penis-squeezing Joe Marler, are prone to doing silly, unnecessary things for no real reason?
It is frustrating because, leaving aside the calamitous PR, the perverse selections and occasional verbal excesses, Jones has helped to improve several individuals. Tom Curry grows in stature by the week, Maro Itoje is a nailed-on World XV starter and, perhaps most crucially, uncut diamonds such as Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge have been polished up into the real deal. A year ago a flustered Sinckler’s yellow card in Cardiff gave Wales crucial match-winning impetus. Now he is a changed, calmer man whom any team in the world would love in their ranks.
Perhaps it would have happened anyway but Sinckler, who is setting up his own foundation to help inner-city kids from London overcome the sort of anger he used to feel, is happy to credit Jones for keeping faith in him following the Cardiff debacle. “Most coaches would have got rid of me. I definitely cost the team a grand slam and I probably cost everyone a shed-load of money in bonuses. At that time my ego was bigger than this room…I always had to get one up on people. Looking back, I really enjoyed being that villain – the bad boy of English rugby. I was just very angry. I do have to show a lot of gratitude to Eddie because he has always stuck by me and protected me. I always feel like he gets the best out of me.”
It is the flip side of the Jones coin. Players such as Sinckler, who revealed on Saturday night his mother was “badly racially abused” at a youth tournament during his formative days with Battersea Ironsides RFC, are embraced and urged to fulfil their potential. If he, Genge, Curry, Itoje, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Henry Slade, Anthony Watson, Ben Earl and co stay together there is no reason on paper why England should not be serious World Cup contenders next time.
Before the RFU rushes headlong into anything, however, it needs to consider whether another coach might be better suited to taking England to the next level? In the Premiership the talent identification skills and galvanising powers of Pat Lam, Rob Baxter, Chris Boyd and Mark McCall are obvious. After the next Lions tour to South Africa Warren Gatland might well be available. Reappointing Jones is not the only available option, although he is starting to sound slightly more enthused about staying put. Assuming the tour to Japan in July goes ahead, he plans to blood new players and insists the team is on the up. “I think the team is growing, We’ve developed and are going in the right direction.”
It is certainly true that England’s pack now takes some crushing even in the absence of the Vunipola brothers. The sight of George Kruis waving to the crowd strongly suggested a changing of the second-row guard but, with Steve Borthwick departing for Leicester imminently, the new forwards coach, Matt Proudfoot, has helped stiffen the set piece. There was too much power, ultimately, for a gallant Wales, although the visitors were responsible for the contest’s best moment, a glorious counterattack immediately after half-time creating a galloping score for the excellent Justin Tipuric.
Given another couple of minutes against a 13-man England at the end, Wales might even have nicked it, which possibly explained Jones’s mixed post-match emotions. “I never enjoy coaching. Winning is a relief. Anyone who tells you they enjoy coaching is lying. If you win you feel good for 24 hours and then you’re back into it.” So will he tell Sweeney he fancies staying until 2023? “I don’t know, mate. I think we’ve got dinner organised in a couple of weeks so we may be able to chat about it. It must be his shout. I’ll take a triple crown to show him.” It has all the ingredients of a very interesting meal.