Of all the things Eddie Jones said during his seven years as England coach, and there were plenty of them, one particular idea seemed to strike a jarring note.
It was in the immediate aftermath of England’s masterful victory over the All Blacks in the 2019 World Cup semi-final, when they were one second-half defensive error away from “nilling” the greatest rugby team on the planet. Jones was bubbling, quite rightly, after witnessing the plan he had lovingly constructed transformed into reality in such dominant fashion.
In a post-match interview with ITV, a beaming Jones said: “We’ve got another week in the comp, so we’re excited about that,” celebrating the fact that England had sent the mighty All Blacks home, while his players had earned their shot at glory.
For a coach who frequently describes his fear of falling into “the dreaded comfort zone” it was an uncharacteristic thing to say. The implication, it seemed, was that having progressed beyond a semi-final that many expected them to lose, anything else that came England’s way in Japan would be a bonus.
Jones would deny this, particularly as he emphasised in the same breath that England intended to work hard and “get better” in the final week. But the way the story unfolded over the next several days, culminating in a humbling defeat by the Springboks, seemed to support the idea that a disproportionate amount of energy had been expended in beating the All Blacks.
By his own admission Jones may have erred in his selection for the final, although whether starting Joe Marler instead of Mako Vunipola would have made a decisive difference is open to question. Adding Henry Slade’s creativity from the start would undoubtedly have been an interesting, positive option.
Selection-wise, Rassie Erasmus’s shrewd deployment of South Africa’s front-rowers in Japan provided a lesson in planning for a long tournament, and that would ultimately have a giant impact on the outcome of the final.
Having heavily rotated his front five throughout, avoiding fatigue by never requiring them to play much more than a half by virtue of a six-two forwards-backs split on the replacements’ bench, Erasmus ensured his “Bomb Squad” were ready to explode against England. It was as devastatingly simple as it was effective.
Jones has also said that England struggled find an extra gear for the final. He had told the media the players’ challenge was to be better again the following week, but such was the near-perfection of the semi-final performance, that was asking a lot.
If it seems unfair to rewind three years in assessing Jones’s time in charge, it is merely judging him by the criteria he sets for himself. World Cups are his raison d’etre as a coach, and the tournament cycle is the priority above all else. If it feels harsh to argue that dominating New Zealand ultimately came at too great a cost in the grand scheme, it is surely a notion that Jones himself has entertained.
On a similar basis, however, it appears to be a significant error to dismiss Jones at this stage. Results had been a concern for a while, the series win in Australia last summer notwithstanding. The lowest point was arguably a thrashing by a Barbarians side at Twickenham who had indulged in more socialising than pre-match training.
But if the experience in Japan demonstrated anything it is that World Cups are about peaking at the right time. With the talent at his fingertips, it is safe to presume Jones would have had England buzzing by the time they arrived in France next year.
As Courtney Lawes has said, the extended time Jones would have had to prepare the squad would have been significant. While fans and media alike complained of a lack of visible progress and there were doubts on overall strategy, Lawes’s stance demonstrated that the players remained on board, which is ultimately the key.
It was not a straightforward decision and the worrying situation meant risk on either path. But in hiring Jones you must accept the World Cup is the goal. By sacking him now the RFU has created another mess, evidenced by the protracted process of prizing Steve Borthwick away from his employment at Leicester, which will do nothing to improve endlessly strained club v country relations.
The fact that Borthwick will not be able to choose his own backroom team further illustrates the unsatisfactory nature of the situation England now find themselves in with less than a year to go before France 2023. On the plus side it was Borthwick, as forwards coach, marshalling the pack when they hammered New Zealand.
Martin Johnson, England’s 2003 World Cup-winning captain, said before the 2019 final that the triumph against the All Blacks would mean nothing if England failed to secure the trophy. That seemed unfair: in itself, it was one of the great performances by any side in international rugby, and at times England played some memorable rugby under Jones.
But that painful night in Yokohama, combined with an abortive 2023 campaign, means Jones’s reign is ultimately about what might have been.