Last Saturday was dismal for the North: played 4, lost 4. England went down to Australia, Ireland to New Zealand, Wales to South Africa, and Scotland to Argentina. Only Wales emerged with any credit, leading South Africa for almost 80 minutes and giving arguably the best Welsh performance for a couple of years.
Alternatively, you might say that it was South Africa’s worst for some time, even worse than their defeat at Twickenham in November, when a combination of poor decisions and defensive errors cost them a match they dominated for most of the game.
Ireland predictably lost to the All Blacks. There is no shame in that. Yet there were worrying signs that coach Andy Farrell may have taken this Ireland team as far as it can go. Scotland had a wretched first half, rallied briefly to score two good tries to level the game, then slumped weakly again.
England was just as feeble, the final score 28-30 flattering them, their last two tries coming in the 80th and 83rd minutes. Coach Eddie Jones says not to worry. It is all part of his preparation for next year’s World Cup.
He is working to plan, and only naïve supporters and untrustworthy journalists think the best preparation is winning matches. A year before the 2003 World Cup Clive Woodward had more or less settled on his best XV. But Jones is, of course, much smarter than the only northern hemisphere coach to have guided his team to win the World Cup.
Actually, Woodward’s team may have peaked the previous year. They played poorly in the early stages of the 2003 Cup and didn’t last as a team long after their triumph. But the point is that Woodward had been consistent in his selection. He didn’t flirt with this, bringing in players for a match or two and then discarding them. His experienced team had developed a winning frame of mind. They knew each other and how their game should be played. They knew one of the most important things: how to win even when you are not at your best.
Jones’ team don’t seem to have the confidence to win if things are going badly. Too often, they look confused, uncertain of how they should be playing, and even rattled. They lack imagination and, even worse, self-discipline. It is ridiculous.
There is no shortage of good players in English rugby, but selecting them and moulding them into a team seems now to be beyond Jones’ ability. Defeats are excused as staging posts on the way to a golden future. Jones is the old jam-merchant: jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, never jam today. He even talks of a full international against Australia as “practice”. Practice for what? The same confusion tomorrow?
He comes up with absurd excuses. Australia had a man sent off. Eddie Jones tells us it’s always more difficult to play against fourteen men because the referee, feeling sorry for the side he has reduced to fourteen, “unconsciously” favours them thereafter in 50-50 decisions. One doesn’t recall Jones spinning this line when England had a player sent off in the first minutes of their match against Ireland in the Spring.
The best coaches trust their players to think for themselves within the pattern the coach has designed. The best coaches know they belong in the back room, not the limelight. You rarely find an All Blacks coach shouting his mouth off and singing his own praises. It was said of Kaiser Wilhelm II that he had to be the star of every event — even, as it were, the bride at every wedding. Jones seems to me a bit like the Kaiser.
Of course, England may beat Australia in the second Test today. There is enough talent in the team for this to be possible. But English fans shouldn’t worry if they lose again. Eddie Jones knows what he is doing, or at least he has told us he knows what he is doing.
Win or lose, it is all part of his cunning plan. Only naïve supporters think it’s important to beat Australia this month. Win or lose, this is, for Jones, a development tour. So that’s all right?
Incidentally, have you heard England’s cricket coach Brenden McCallum singing his own praises after his side’s remarkable victories this summer? Thought not.