One moment he’s the man with all the answers, the next he’s utterly powerless against the vagaries of professional sport
It was something Martin Johnson said that resonated most powerfully around Yokohama on Saturday night. A quote he had borrowed from heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. “Everyone has a plan,” Tyson said, “until they get punched in the mouth.”
Tyson was speaking in his heyday, before a fight against a difficult opponent. Lots of lateral movement, lots of speed, lots of dancing had been promised. Tyson was being told about all the tricky manoeuvres this challenger had in store. That was his reply.
Later in his career, he expanded on it. “If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere you’re also going to get the wrath,” he explained. “Let’s see how you deal with that. Normally people don’t deal with it too well.”
Tyson would have recognised this outcome as what befell England’s players on Saturday. They got punched in the mouth – metaphorically, because South Africa were nothing less than fair – and they froze.
Losing Kyle Sinckler so early was a significant blow, too, but it should not have thrown them through a loop as it did. Eddie Jones always talked about his finishers as if they were a match for his starters, perhaps even better.
Sinckler’s injury exposed the reality. Dan Cole came on and England’s scrum got monstered. As the game moved away from England, the coach threw on finisher after finisher – with the exception of Joe Marler, each less effective than the last.
Ben Spencer’s briefest of cameos when the game was lost suggested he was not tournament-ready, given scrum-half Ben Youngs was turning in one of his most erratic displays in recent memory. And as it all fell apart, with it went the fragile veneer of the super-coach.
As brilliant as Jones was considered to have been against New Zealand, so he was ineffectual here. Choker-hama, one newspaper tagged it. The game got away from them all and in the aftermath there was nothing Jones could do to explain it. Again.
He does this sometimes. One moment he’s the man with all the answers, the next he’s utterly powerless against the vagaries of professional sport. And, yes, we know, flesh and blood creatures do not have the reliability of machines. They panic, they fear.
A jet’s on-board computer is brilliant but it does not know or imagine the human consequence of crashing into the sea; the pilot does. Yet gun coaches are employed to solve these problems, just as Jones assured everyone he could fix England’s mental failings in March.
That was the day his team went from 31-0 up to 38-31 down against Scotland, starting nine of the same XV who faced the Springboks. And while the scoreboard was fairly consistent throughout the final – South Africa never worse than level, and even then only for 17 minutes of 80 – the drop in performance Saturday to Saturday was every bit as dramatic as the Calcutta Cup collapse.
Jones’ exhortations to look on the bright side seemed rather hollow in the circumstances. England were looking for a man with answers. Instead, like his scrum, he was back-pedalling.
“I’ve been coaching 23 years, it happens periodically every time,” said not-quite-so-Fast Eddie. “You think you’ve got a team right and ready to go and for some reason they don’t perform to the level you expect. Why, I don’t know. I’ve spoken to a lot of experienced coaches about it and everyone says the same thing. You just don’t know. You’re better off putting that game aside and getting on with it.”
Do you think it was the occasion?
“OK, you write that.”
But we’re asking you?
“You’re the clever guy, you write it. I think I’ve just answered it mate, haven’t I answered it?”
Well, you said you didn’t know.
“I don’t know. What do you want me to say? I don’t know. If I knew I’d be able to fix it, and I wasn’t able to fix it.”
When it’s happened before, do you ever get an answer, maybe some time later?
“No, I don’t think you do. A lot of the time you don’t work it out because it just happens.
“We’ve had a great run, we’ve played good rugby, we got caught in a couple of areas today and we couldn’t get out of them – for instance, the scrum – and it trickled down through the rest of the game and affects the team. Then we’re struggling to get on the front foot.
“The game today is about getting on the front foot and we couldn’t. If you can’t do that you look like a team who lacks ideas, lacks energy, looks tired, all those things. The reality is something slightly wasn’t right and we couldn’t fix it on the field. That happens.”
And then the frustration of impotence came out.
“I’m disappointed there’s such a negative attitude about our performance,” said Jones. “We’ve just taken a team that couldn’t get out of the pools and got beaten in the final, and there’s all this negativity. I find it incredible, guys. We weren’t good enough today. So sorry, I apologise. What do you want me to say? Tell me what you want me to say. We are the second best team in the world.
“There are 18 other teams wishing they were here in the final and had got beaten. We finished ahead of 18 other teams. Remember three weeks ago, guys, I was going to get the sack. I read all your articles. There was going to be blood on the walls at Twickenham. All the blood was going to be up here. You wrote it guys, come on. Let’s get real about this.”
OK, let’s get real. There was one article in one newspaper that mentioned, figuratively, blood on the walls at Twickenham and it was referring to the reckoning that would follow if England lost to Australia in the quarter-final.
In those circumstances, it was imagined, it would be difficult for the RFU to justify further investment in Jones and he could well be sacked. England won, magnificently, against Australia.
The scenario of Jones’s premature departure – he has two years on his contract – has not been mentioned since. It wasn’t after the final, either. Jones was not asked if he would be standing down, or if he might be sacked. Indeed, the only questions about his future concerned whether he would wish to extend his contract to take a young squad through to the next World Cup in France.
So, the idea the world is against him is a red herring. There are always scenarios linked to success and failure. All would acknowledge, the final aside, that this campaign has been positive for Jones and his team. If he wanted to be around in 2023, he could be. The RFU have made that clear.
Now the pool-stage exit. It is disingenuous to bring up the 2015 campaign as if it is the mark of where English rugby typically resided. Going out at the pool stage is a dismal failure so great it did leave blood on the walls.
The coach, his staff, the captain, large elements of the team were all cleared out as a result. The RFU appointed their first foreign coach and at great expense, so huge was the reaction.
Here is England’s record at the Rugby World Cup: quarter-finals, final, semi-finals, quarter-finals, winners, final, quarter-finals, OUT AT THE POOL STAGE, final. Spot the odd one out.
So Jones’ job certainly wasn’t to ensure England didn’t finish behind France and Argentina in Pool C and the 2015 anomaly does not reflect England’s traditional level; if we’re getting real.
Equally, when a man has been appointed as a coaching guru, the finest rugby brain available with a price to match, forgive us for looking to him for answers about England’s display, following a crushing disappointment.
It’s just after the game. He’s consumed by the outcome. We get that. Jones said it took him four years to get over it, the last time he lost a World Cup final, and the defeat in 2003 won’t have immunised him for the hurt he feels over this one, but come on. Given the extraordinary 80 minutes against the All Blacks, nobody can have been happy with what they saw on Saturday, least of all Jones.
Everyone has theories but they want to know what the man at the centre of it thinks. Here’s what he thinks. “It’s sport, mate. We’ve got 23 individuals, they’ve got 23 individuals and the psychological level of teams is never constant.
“We got caught today. They won a significant area of the game which was the scrum and then you are battling to get on the front foot. You’re batting here and it’s hard to score runs when the ball is up there all the time. That’s what happened today.
“We couldn’t get out of it. We tried to break it and sometimes you lose your wicket. And it’s contagious. In a game which was nip and tuck, when a team has a scrum advantage, it’s difficult to stay in. South Africa scrummed well and that’s the game.’
Yet England’s scrum has been good, so that’s the mystery. And maybe it will only be answered when Jones forms his squad for the Six Nations. “I tell you what happens to teams: they evolve,” said Jones. “Some guys will lose desire, some will lose fitness, some will get injuries, and there’ll be young guys coming through.
“So this team is finished now. There will be a new team and that new team will be the basis of going to the next World Cup.”
Maybe Jones already knows many of the personnel. Maybe he hasn’t a clue. He might have all the answers, he might have none. The problem for English rugby is that, post-Yokohama, no one is quite sure what is true any more.