Exactly a year ago this week Eddie Jones was basking in a World Cup semi-final victory against New Zealand in Yokohama, among the most triumphant moments of his coaching career. The final turned out less brilliantly for him but it was still easy to imagine England returning from Japan and enjoying themselves in the 2020 Six Nations championship.
Sport, and life, is rarely so predictable. Even so, no one envisaged England would still be waiting in late October to conclude their Six Nations campaign in Rome, with nine of the 23-man squad who beat New Zealand unavailable or not selected for the tournament’s finale. Jones was always going to have some rebuilding to do but, suddenly, there is scaffolding everywhere.
England’s autumn squad announcement, consequently, is a significant signpost to the future. It has been so long since England actually played that the 33-30 win over Wales in March, before the Covid-19 pandemic intervened, now almost feels like a different era. Seven of that starting lineup, for various reasons, will not face Italy and even those that did play in March will find themselves playing a sport that, in Jones’s view, is being transformed in real time.
Set aside, for a moment, any specific head-scratching over certain omitted individuals, not least from Exeter, and listen, for example, to Jones on the subject of midfield selection. “One of the most telling stats in rugby now is the number of times the 12 passes the ball to the 13. Just watch the next game and see how many times it happens. While defensively you need a guy at 13 who can defend in space, rush defences mean centres are now basically running backs. There’s not really a differentiation between 12 and 13 in a lot of ways in attack.”
Jones, accordingly, says he will simply pick his two best centres, full stop. Having racked up 8,000 miles since mid-August watching an assortment – in every sense – of Premiership games, the head coach has also been pondering what the fly-halves of the future will look like. Interestingly he reckons the Northampton full-back George Furbank – struggling for form of late – could be transformed into a decent 10, while simultaneously arguing that fly-half is such a delicate skill only dedicated specialists should consider it. “Number 10s are like sushi chefs. As a sushi chef you’ve got a lifetime ambition to be good. It generally takes about 10 years before you can start making sushi. Tens are the same.”
The analogy also falls down slightly in the case of Owen Farrell, who was running Saracens’ kitchen in his teens, but Jones is spot-on in diagnosing rush defence as the mortal enemy of classic 10-12-13 midfield interplay.
“If you pass the ball three times now, generally speaking you are going to have the defence on top of you. The ability to get a fourth pass in is very difficult. You see that in most of rugby … 80%, approximately, is one-pass rugby. Only around 20% involves two or three passes. We want to make sure we stay ahead of the game and are trying to think of ways we can break down rush defences.”
Which is a roundabout way of explaining why Wasps’ 22-year‑old Jacob Umaga is on the verge of a first Test cap rather than Joe Simmonds, captain of the double-winning Exeter, who is not even in the squad with George Ford injured. Jones likes both the way Umaga attacks the line and the instinctive way he reacts to situations, as illustrated by his lovely try in the Premiership final on Saturday.
“When Mark Ella played 10 for Australia he had probably 15 metres between him and the defence line. Now when the No 10 has the ball, they literally have three metres before someone is going to bang them. The ability to make decisions quickly is extraordinarily difficult. You have to identify those guys who have that instinctiveness and then try to bring them through.
“That’s why I like Umaga. He is at the start of his apprenticeship but he might graduate very quickly. He might be able to make sushi at the corner stall and then be able to make sushi at a five-star restaurant.”
Other fresh-faced winners – in the absence of the injured Ford, Elliot Daly, Manu Tuilagi, Courtney Lawes and others – include the uncapped Worcester centre Ollie Lawrence, the Northampton lock David Ribbans and Wasps’ Jack Willis, along with Exeter’s Jonny Hill and the Gloucester wing Ollie Thorley. All should get a run at some point this autumn but for the unlucky Simmonds brothers, Wasps’ Zach Kibirige and Sale’s Luke James, everything is not yet lost. By next November the English rugby landscape may well have changed again.