Last Saturday, Eddie Jones’ winning streak against his native Australia came to a thudding halt against a 14-man Wallaby side who managed to score 19 unanswered points in a 20-minute period to take the first leg of a three-game series 30-28.
For England, it was the last of the Jones records that was left unscathed – an eight-match unbeaten streak against the head coach’s homeland – and one that leaves both the Rugby World Cup plans and Jones’ tenure at risk.
World champion Lewis Moody, a keen club cricketer since his rugby retirement, believes that England are falling between two mantras of rugby – the conservatism of Saracens and Leicester and the flamboyance of Harlequins – and that England need to respond by perhaps a change in thinking.
“The change of attitude that England Cricket have displayed recently under Brendon McCullum shows what can be achieved with immense self-belief, commitment and a high skill level,” mused the former England skipper.
“The mental approach is quite astonishing – the cricketers are playing without any fear of failure, which is due to the empowerment ‘Baz’ is giving them, but most importantly, they are simply making brilliant decisions on a ball-by-ball basis.
“Rugby can be broken down like cricket – not in terms of ball-by-ball but in terms of players delivering the right decisions with completed skills on a consistent basis – it’s exactly the same as executing the shots but playing each and every ball on its merits.
“Looking back on the first Test, England played well in terms of possession and territory early doors to the point I was quite confident. But then, as England won a penalty and kicked for goal, both of my kids said ‘why are they doing that when they’ve been so effective early on?’ They were right – England were on top and at that moment, it was time to turn the screw, to believe in themselves and to, in cricket terms, smash a boundary rather than scamper a single.
“Yes, I can see they were trying to build a score, but in modern Test rugby you’re not going to beat sides by holding slim margins throughout the match – unless like the Springboks, you have total domination of collision and set-piece. The game has moved on and all of the top teams can score boatloads of tries from several positions on the field and three-point margins simply are not enough, especially when you know that as a side, you are less than efficient in terms of red-zone conversion.”
“As I understand it, ‘Baz’ McCullum and Ben Stokes talked openly about wanting to enjoy their matches – to play with fun, freedom and not to worry about failure. It was a team decision to deliver the style they’ve adopted, but one that had its roots in absolute commitment, from one to eleven, to playing attacking cricket in every facet, whether it be captaincy, batting, bowling or fielding,” Moody commented.
“In rugby, that mantra can be to defend with an attacking mindset, to deliver your set-piece similarly, or simply to attack with ball in hand – all of these tasks can be delivered with a safety first thought pattern, or you can go full on ‘Baz Ball’ and go for the creative and potentially more satisfying option.
“It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – as the more you are enjoying that attacking option and the more it succeeds, the more you’ll commit to it and the more fun you will have as a player. At an England level myself, the rugby we played when I was first capped was some of the most enjoyable of my career – free scoring and free flowing rugby like the November Test series of 2002 versus South Africa, New Zealand and Australia where I think we scored around 110 points against the big guns in three consecutive Tests. That experience led to a Grand Slam the following year and later on, obviously a World Cup.
“You need clear communication on this – the skipper and coach set the agenda and the team follows. Look at what Stokes did in the first ball of the Lords test against New Zealand – Wham! – down the wicket first ball and whack! He’s setting the tone, saying I am doing it this way. I know that someone asked Ben about Michael Vaughan’s thoughts of the importance of digging out a draw to build confidence – Stokes replied ‘Play for a draw? Yeah, I won’t be doing that!’ He is the leader and he is setting the tone.”
“The synthesis of coach and skipper then needs to support players – support them when they cock up, get behind them and don’t, under any circumstances, retro-coach to reinforce a negative. Understand that you’ve agreed a way to play and that, within the boundaries of reasonableness, that’s the method we stick to and we’ll hone our skills to deliver that method. Alex Lees is a great example of this – a man that was scratching around at the crease is now looking a liberated strokeplayer under the new regime.
“It might mean you change the way you train to deliver your match-plan and it might mean that you are forced to create an environment where fear of failure isn’t there – and that truly is doable with the right commitment.
“At the moment, I think a lot of this is being coached out of the rugby boys. It seems very prescriptive – there’s a fear of giving away possession, but little knowledge of how to use that possession effectively at Test level. It’s almost like if you try and force things, you’re going to be lambasted and that’s not a healthy elite sport environment.
“I believe this can be dated back to the Rugby World Cup final in 2019. The mental scarring of that game is still so deep and raw for England that it’s causing them to hear two voices during every decision and they’re confused by the risk/reward equation.
“Make no doubt about it, every Test player wants to give the game of their lives every time they take the pitch, but your own mental frailty can often prevent that if you cannot conquer your own lack of self-belief.
“The big question remains is can England adopt this style under Eddie Jones? I honestly do not know the answer to that one – and I don’t know if it’s something he actually wants to do, nor if it would work in rugby.
“But what I do know is right now, England are falling between two stools – they have the Ying and Yang voices in their heads in a metaphorical form and on the pitch in a real form, Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell operating at 10 and 12 with two completely contrasting philosophies of rugby in their thinking.
“Bluntly, it’s not working and for me it’s a simple one – whatever the result, I would rather play with positivity, fun and freedom than with caution and restraint- and one thing is for sure, the latter isn’t working at the moment.”
Australia v England second Test preview
Planet Rugby previews the second Test between Australia and England in Brisbane.