On the eve of last year’s Six Nations, England’s new coach Eddie Jones received an extraordinary phone call. The man he had replaced, Stuart Lancaster, was ringing with words of advice.
Despite being at the lowest point of his professional career after being sacked following a disastrous 2015 World Cup, Lancaster still had something to give to England’s cause.
“I contacted the RFU and said I thought it would be a good idea for me to meet Eddie,” he tells Radio Times. “It was fairly soon after he took over, before the Six Nations last year. I went through what I had learnt as coach of England and tried to pass on as much information as I could that would help him make informed decisions going forward.”
After the pasting he’d taken in the media, and the personal hurt, it took a big man to do that. But Lancaster will not even take the credit for it. “At the same time Eddie was thinking of calling me, so we both thought it would be a good idea.”
Jones has clearly made good use of his “debrief”, along with the skills and experience he picked up in his years in charge of Australia, Japan and various club sides. Because from that moment on, England under Eddie Jones have won 14 matches on the trot.
One more in this season’s Six Nations opener at home to France on Saturday will set an all-time record for England of 15 straight wins, and put them in sight of New Zealand’s record of 18. Jones has a knack for making the right decisions, such as making Dylan Hartley, exiled by Lancaster because of his disciplinary history, the captain.
And the versatile forward Maro Itoje, uncapped by Lancaster, was named Breakthrough Player of the Year at the World Rugby awards after stellar performances for England and his club, Saracens. “He has brought his own personality and style to the team and they have benefited,” Lancaster says.
“I’m not surprised England have been successful, but a huge amount of credit should go to Eddie and his coaching team. It’s very, very positive for these players.
“We won a lot of games in the lead-up to the World Cup, 16 out of 20 in the Six Nations. This group of players, I always thought their time was going to be between the 2015 and 2019 World Cups. Together they’ll end up with 700, 800, 900 caps by the next World Cup.
“The gap between the southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere teams is closing and there are definitely players capable of performing well against New Zealanders. They will get an opportunity for the Lions this summer as I expect quite a lot of England players to go.”
First, though, is the Six Nations, for which Jones’s resurgent England are odds-on favourites. The odds of them completing another grand slam are shorter than the odds for Ireland, the second favourites, to win the championship.
If England have never had it so good – at least not since they won the World Cup for the only time in 2003, when Jones coached the beaten Australians – Jones is not getting carried away.
“Our progress is satisfactory,” Jones tells Radio Time. “We’re moving towards the World Cup in 2019, and it’s a bit of a trip. Sometimes you catch the bus, sometimes you miss the bus, and at the moment we’re catching the bus. We’ve got a good solid core of hard-working, dedicated, enthusiastic players, a good staff. I haven’t run into any areas that I don’t enjoy at the moment.”
The most impressive performance for Jones was the third win in a 3–0 thumping of Australia Down Under. “We’d already won the series and the players were massively physically fatigued. I thought that game would be a bridge too far. The mental effort to win that game was enormous, and really showed how much pride the players have in the English shirt. It was an absolutely outstanding performance.”
One of Australia’s top rugby columnists wrote, “an Australian out-thinking, out-manoeuvring, basically out-Australianing an Australian team, is infuriating”.
Every game is a step towards Jones’s big goal of “trying to put together a team that will beat New Zealand”, winners of the past two World Cups. Lancaster believes the gap between the dominant southern teams and Europe is closing.
“The way I always look at it is, do we have players who are world class, in the top three in their position? And England definitely have,” he says. “You don’t win many games without having players of that quality. The young England players who I coached in 2015 now have 30, 40, 50 caps’ worth of experience. Talent and experience – England now have both in equal measure.”
He highlights Owen Farrell, George Ford, Maro Itoje, and Mako Vunipola as key players over the past year: “They have really stood up. Despite the run of wins and the star players, Lancaster does not expect to see a grand slam showdown between Ireland and England, as many predict, in the last round of games.
“Some of the other teams were going through a period of transition last year, but they’ve been through that and look at the improvement Scotland have made, and Ireland, who beat New Zealand and Australia in the autumn.
“I don’t think it will come down to a grand slam decider between England and Ireland – there will be ups and downs for all the teams.
“And I don’t think anyone on the coaching teams will be looking beyond the first game. England have a tricky game against France, who have improved massively under Guy Novès. Ireland have to go to Scotland, which will be difficult, and Italy beat South Africa in the autumn internationals so I don’t think that’s an easy game for Wales either.”
After leaving the England job in early 2016, Lancaster worked briefly in rugby union, rugby league, Aussie rules and American football, before returning as senior coach at Leinster, where he has been a great success. There is even talk of Lancaster taking charge of the ailing Leicester Tigers next season. If he does, what chance the man sacked to make way for him will call him up to talk about the future?
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