Eddie Jones believes Owen Farrell was able to rediscover his best form in England’s thrilling Six Nations victory over France because of a deliberate policy not to approach the referee.
Farrell produced arguably his best performance for England since the 2019 World Cup on Saturday and Jones revealed that the gameplan was to “allow the referee to do what he wanted”, allowing his captain to direct his aggression towards France instead.
Jones spent last week drilling his players on how to react to dubious refereeing decisions and invited the leading officials Wayne Barnes and Matthew Carley into camp in an effort to improve his side’s discipline. Farrell admitted before the match he had spoken to Carley about his communication with referees – an area of his game often criticised – but Jones revealed the idea was to avoid it where possible.
Jones did take issue with what he perceived as a “captain’s challenge” to the referee from France – seemingly a reference to Andrew Brace overturning a late decision and penalising Ben Earl – and labelling the call “ridiculous”. But as far as Farrell’s dealings with the referee, Jones believes his captain carried out instructions to a tee. He said: “[Owen has] got back to that belligerent, aggressive self and we basically made the decision on the referee, we were going to allow the referee to do what he wanted – no queries, no questions, [Owen] had a gameplan.
“Owen got a great balance in his game because of that, I thought he was at his aggressive best. The way Owen has responded to the criticism he has received has been absolutely outstanding. He hasn’t whinged, hasn’t complained, took it on the chin and got on with it. Fixed his game.”
Jones was equally effusive in his praise for Maro Itoje, highlighting how he and the outstanding Tom Curry supported Farrell in a leadership capacity. Itoje came under fire for conceding five penalties against Wales last time out but gave away just one against France before coming up with the decisive try. “I thought [Maro] was sensational,” added Jones. “I thought he was incredible, given the amount of criticism that he has received. That’s a player of greater stature and when you consider the performances of him, Owen and Tom Curry, they set the platform for the team.”
Meanwhile, Itoje has acknowledged that he has to change his reputation as a serial penalty offender without losing his edge. The 26-year-old was more subdued than usual in the opening exchanges but his influence grew as the match wore on, culminating in a cathartic match-winning try in front of the watching British & Irish Lions head coach, Warren Gatland.
“There’s been a bit of perception that has come about with my game and how I play the game,” said Itoje. “I am just working hard to try and change that perception. I don’t want to lose any of the good stuff that I do and the good stuff that I bring because I know what I can bring to a team and how I can influence a game. I want to still be as confrontational as I can. I don’t want to lose my bite, I don’t want to lose the things that make me a good player.
“But, at the same time, I want to change that perception. It’s only one game but I’ll have to do that on a consistent level to change the perception. If you give away five penalties then referees [will hear] outside noise [which] is going to say that Maro Itoje gives away a lot of penalties. Everything has an influence. Things that people say, things that people think. They all affect how referees prepare for the game. At the moment that’s the perception. I have to do some work in changing that.
“I know how I can influence a game, but it’s probably just about not trying to do it all or trusting the system to deal with it rather than putting myself in situations where I can deal with it. I can still influence the game and still have moments in the game that I can influence, but it is a bit of a balancing act. Choose my moments, have an understanding of the context of the game, where we are on the field, adapting to what the referee is doing a bit better – a combination of all of those things.”