There were eyebrows raised when England appointed an Australian as head coach of the national rugby union side. It didn’t sit well given the rivalry between the two nations, much as it didn’t when the cricket team made the same step.
But a Grand Slam in the Six Nations has made everyone forget Eddie Jones’ nationality very quickly and instead admire the transformation he has brought to an England side that crashed out of their own World Cup in humiliating circumstances just a few short months ago.
To be frank, England have got their bite back. Jones has instilled a cutting edge, ruthlessness and has put England on the road to redemption. In the media, Jones has been on the front foot, talking up the potential of his side as well as picking fights with the opposition. It’s a winning attitude and a mentality that has transferred itself onto the field.
That’s not to suggest Stuart Lancaster did everything wrong as Coach. Quite the opposite. Lancaster picked English rugby off its knees after the 2011 World Cup and the ill-discipline that came with it. He brought a calm assurance to the side but they lacked that edge. Lancaster’s England seemed like a very nice side but never felt like ruthless winners.
The best sides are rarely likeable. There has to be a snarl and an attack to a successful team. Manchester United’s treble winners, arguably the best club side English football has ever seen, had the abrasive Roy Keane as captain and a pair of strikers in Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham who couldn’t stand the sight of each other. A hint of bite to accompany the bark is rarely a bad thing for a side that wants to become true winners.
From the outside looking in, Jones has put that bite back into the national side. A first Grand Slam since 2003, the year England won the World Cup, is a tangible marker for progress and is a perfect stepping stone for success over the next four years.
Young talent has also stepped forward in this Six Nations for England and has been married with the experience heads who have come out the other side of that bruising World Cup campaign. No light has shone brighter than Maro Itoje, the second-row who has been billed as a potential superstar of the world game. Coupled with the electrifying pace of Anthony Watson, the masterful George Kruis and the powerful Billy Vunipola and the future looks bright for this side. New captain Dylan Hartley and the man he replaced as skipper Chris Robshaw have had superb tournaments and have shown the kind of leadership that the best sides need to hit the heights.
Hartley is an example of the new edge about England. A controversial pick as skipper due to his past discipline issues, the hooker epitomises the winning mentality emerging about this side.
This positivity needs to be tempered with a hint of realism. There are still too many errors made, too much loss of control in games and a lack of a clinical knack of killing teams off. Also, everyone is painfully aware of where the power lies in world rugby and the Six-Nations is the poor relation of The Rugby Championship. Beating Wales and Ireland is one thing but bigger challenges will come in the form of New Zealand and Australia and this England side need to succeed where the previous regime failed and show that they can consistently get the better of their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.
But it all looks to be there for England. They have played with a carefree approach, a willingness to throw the ball around and utilise the strengths of their back line and the dynamism of their forwards. They’ve dared to throw off some of the shackles that seemed to constrain them throughout the World Cup. This crop of players has a blend of youth and experience that sets them up perfectly for the challenges ahead.
Jones though appears to have been the catalyst. He has come across as a smiling presence but with the underlying impression that there is a snarl behind that smile. That grit, that edge, is crucial for the best teams. Go back to the Grand Slam of 2003 when Martin Johnson refused to move his side to make way for Ireland as the President walked out in Dublin and you see why that side went on to be World Cup winners. This England regime is beginning to instil a similar determination.
When asked ahead of the France clash, Jones simply replied, “we are going to win the Grand Slam.”
An unwavering belief, a confidence, a swagger, a grit. It’s a shame it’s taken an Australian to instil it, but England now possess an edge that is hinting at success beyond this impressive Grand Slam triumph.
Featured Image: Mike Egerton/PA