For Eddie Jones, the metaphors often change but the message largely stays the same. Previously it has been how hand grenades go off when the pressure cranks up, more recently an elaborate comparison with the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and on Friday it was the uncertainty around mortgage rates in an ailing economy.
Each time the point is whether Jones’s players can react to events in real time and adapt on the hoof. The message rarely changes because the problem perennially raises its head. Moreover, Jones sees the current international landscape as more volatile than ever. The risk of yellow and red cards and the potential to lose players to injuries has never been as great. With World Rugby also making it harder for coaches to get messages on to the pitch, on-field leadership and adaptability have become two of the most important qualities for anyone with designs on winning next year’s World Cup.
“[In 2019] we didn’t have the number of red and yellow cards we do now. If you look at how the game is going, that is only going to increase,” said Jones. “And the care for the players in terms of head injuries is only going to increase. We don’t know where it is going to end. Whereas the game up to 2019 was much more settled. The world was more settled. You look at BBC News, mortgage rates are going up, unemployment is going to double, TMOs are going to become more powerful … it is all on the BBC, you just have to watch it every day!”
Which brings us to Jones’s decision to reinstate Owen Farrell as England’s captain for Sunday’s Test against Argentina, quite possibly the rest of the autumn and maybe even through to France 2023. Indeed, when Jones talks of this campaign as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, by the same token it seems an audition for Farrell as leading man.
On one hand it was a straightforward decision. Courtney Lawes may still be Jones’s preferred option for the World Cup if he is fit but here is the head coach giving a player he insists does not get the credit he deserves his robust backing. On the other, it is a calculated risk. That the competitive streak in Farrell which Jones so cherishes does not increase the likelihood of those grenades going off again – particularly when the head coach sees the ability to calmly communicate with referees as of increasing importance.
For Farrell, the most obvious example is the 2021 Six Nations defeat in Cardiff when he evidently lost his head with Pascal Gaüzère when he awarded Wales two controversial tries. There have been others, the capitulation in the 2019 draw with Scotland springs to mind, but to pin the problem squarely on Farrell’s shoulders is unfair. It afflicts the whole squad – Jones has employed multiple psychologists in an effort to bring about improvements – and this year’s Six Nations defeat by Scotland was on Tom Curry’s watch. England’s abject failure to reverse the tide against 14-man Australia in the opening Test of the summer is another example and Lawes was captain that day. “Your leadership needs to be able to adapt,” added Jones. “Now more than ever, once the whistle goes we [coaches] have very little input because you can’t get messages on the field.”
This is what Jones means when he describes the coming autumn campaign as a dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup. Four years ago he hosted a sushi night at England’s Bagshot base in an effort to show his players what to expect in Japan but the squad are familiar enough with France and more important to Jones is testing how his players deal with the uncontrollables. For gone are the days when in charge of the Brumbies or Japan that Jones would effectively programme his players with instructions for each quarter of the match. “We don’t know what form the game will take and that’s the opportunity,” he said. “We want to be at the forefront of that. Our target is to be at our best at the World Cup, how we can develop an adaptable team for the World Cup that can adapt to any situation.”
The appointments of Jack Nowell and Ellis Genge as vice-captains are designed to bring balance to Farrell’s intensity and as Jones says, “both guys are very empathetic. They’re very good at bringing people together.” Nowell does not immediately strike as leadership material in the conventional sense but is a popular figure and someone whose strengths, you suspect, lie in his ability to find the off switch. Genge, according to the forwards coach, Richard Cockerill, is “really socially aware” and another to whom teammates naturally warm.
To entirely focus on the leadership group and Farrell the captain is to risk rendering Farrell the player of secondary importance, however. That frustrates Jones and it should be noted that on Sunday he unleashes a midfield combination of Marcus Smith, Farrell and Manu Tuilagi for the first time from the start. It is the combination Jones wants to field at the World Cup and it is one to quicken the pace of supporters en route to Twickenham. Whether the captaincy liberates or burdens Farrell has been open to debate since the first time he assumed the role and his leadership on Sunday will be scrutinised more than ever. A mainstay of Jones’ team though? Put the mortgage on it.