England’s rugby landscape currently resembles a scene from Apocalypse Now.
A cursory stroll through its community sees wrecked clubs scattered around the pathway, a dysfunctional governance system, a dwindling and poverty-ridden population and a healthcare system that simply isn’t fit for purpose. In short, you couldn’t make this up.
At the centre of attention there’s two key issues that dominate the horizon (notwithstanding the structural issues such as HIA and inclusion) – the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) Select Committee allegations towards the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and CEO Bill Sweeney and the current tenure of England head coach Eddie Jones.
Asleep at the wheel
With speculation and opinion rife on social media and in clubhouses, let’s firstly examine the facts as we understand them:
1. Last Thursday, at the DCMS Select Committee hearing, Sweeney was accused of being asleep at the wheel and was basically eviscerated at the hands of Julian Knight MP (irony sidebar: a member of the same Government that has presided over the biggest recession and economic crash since the Great Depression of 1931).
Knight took great pleasure in some political cheap shots but for those who have tracked the Worcester and Wasps issues, for him to claim anyone was asleep at the wheel given the masterly inactivity of DCMS during the whole saga is close to risible.
In short, it was no more than a chest thumping ego trip for the committee that achieved absolutely nothing and, rather remarkably, failed to request that the owners of Warriors attend to face the same level of detailed scrutiny.
Nevertheless, the RFU and Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) left with tails between mutual legs after facing a gruelling afternoon of the wild blunderbusses of career politicians looking to boost their political capital.
2. Post England‘s rather non-plussing Autumn Nations Series, the RFU have announced a formal review of Jones and the team’s performance. However, those who spend time with the England communications team noticed a distinct change of voice and hardening of the RFU position, with powerful descriptive adjectives such as ‘disappointed’, interspersed with statements of fact, within the press releases.
In addition to this, The Mail reported that the England Rugby World Cup fact finding trip to France had been postponed, followed the next day by the pulling of the media drinks reception on December 5 – all caveated with ‘given the review process’ as a reason for the cancellations.
It is a statement of fact that the RFU already have begun the process to replace Jones post the World Cup, with Ronan O’Gara, Scott Robertson and Steve Borthwick their proposed shortlist. Sacking Jones now would mean accelerating that process – if that is possible, due to the existing contractual commitments of the two favoured candidates. The cost of this change is likely to be over £2m in terms of notice periods, contract buyouts and the inevitable chaos in the coaching support staff.
Now, when both of the ingredients above are blended together, we see an RFU CEO, Sweeney, under pressure by politicians to do something that could be deemed ‘decisive’, an England head coach that has become vulnerable by his own performance standards, and a baying media fuelled by public opinion that Jones is past his sell-by date.
There is a very real danger that the decision will be powered by political and media opinion over rugby reasons and that the process of recruiting the right successor will be formed by immediate tactical need over long-term strategic vision.
There is also a feeling that whilst the person is the primary focus, nailing the structure and job description is singularly the most important task and one that looks like it could very well be overlooked in the haste to be seen to act against a very tight timeline.
Ever since Jones’ appointment, we’ve seen a massive churn in backroom and ancillary staff. We hear rumours of Jones doing his job almost unchallenged and unfettered by supervisory direction from above and there’s a feeling within the sport that, whilst Jones is a brilliant coach when in his tracksuit, his player selection and his support staff recruitment are both Achilles heels of his impressive rugby intellect. Neither of these have an impact on his direct ability to coach, but they are issues that perhaps prevent him from delivering his role.
Julian Knight MP has accused RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney as being 'asleep on the job', for failing to keep clubs like Worcester and Wasps alive. pic.twitter.com/n1eOAzDZr3
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) November 24, 2022
An example of recruitment is the recent move to appoint yet another defence coach from rugby league (Brett Hodgson), whose rugby union CV is limited to a short stint at Sale Sharks as a specialist kicking coach. Coaching union defences is far more complex than those of league – the 15 man code has breakdowns, set-pieces, mauls and aerial challenges to defend, all absolutely crucial areas of engagement and ones gathering in importance, whereas league is rather more simplistic in its construct and predominantly requires a focus on line defence.
To appoint someone without those skills or experiences nine months out from a World Cup, someone who has no knowledge of Premiership players, and then expecting them to learn on the job, seems somewhat hopeful, especially considering some outstanding English union defence coaches (who were also available) were neither consulted nor considered.
Continuing this theme, it also means that the England coaching team exists in an isolated bubble – one where there’s zero working knowledge (other than anecdotal or observational) over the players that they’re selecting from the Premiership. There’s no-one who can advise on character and behaviour within an elite environment and no-one who has any real experience of working with any of the current squad in any form of real-time pressure of a big match situation.
This is partly the reason of the huge churn of squad players who live and die by the perception of their in-camp persona and abilities over their contributions and skill sets relative to their club environments. Sure, there’s lines of communication between England and the clubs, but that relies upon conversations, tact and opinion over evidence and fact.
For Jones or his successor to succeed, much greater focus needs to be placed upon the job description and supporting role descriptions to deliver success. And, even given Jones’ autonomy and bullish behaviour, he needs both support and counselling when the emotions of rugby put him under duress, for the role of head coach is wonderful during success but can be bloody lonely during times of failure.
There is also a question of self-awareness; there are reasons for the coach churn that some believe are behavioural. Does it need a buffer personality (a director of rugby, in effect), someone that can talk rugby nuance at Jones’ level, between Sweeney and the head coach? Should the Review Panel be that buffer? Does greater scrutiny of support coaches need to take place?
These are all questions that are unanswered and ones better framed before appointment than after appointment – for the simple reason that any future relationship of union and coach needs to be equitable, not one sided, and one driven by employer need over employee demand.
The bottom line is that whichever way you think the coin should fall, there are wider issues that need addressing before a decision is made, something that should be (and we believe is) part of that review process.
The great cricket captain Mike Brearley once commented that ‘the notion a winning team should never be changed is as fatuous as saying a losing team should always be changed’. His view, paraphrased, was just because results haven’t gone your way, it doesn’t mean to say you’ve not got selected the best team possible, and vice versa.
Time for a fresh voice?
Based upon Brearley’s theory, the five key questions for England are clear and only by answering these accurately can the right course of action be determined:
1. Do we have the right support structure in place to allow success and have we (the RFU) written the correct job description?
2. Is Jones’ position still tenable from a player credibility and technical perspective or is there a danger we are using him as a scapegoat for the DCMS Select Committee and media comments?
3. Is he the best possible person currently available to lead England in Rugby World Cup 2023?
4. Would making an alternative appointment increase England’s chances of success?
5. Would appointing his successor now be a) timely and b) be giving that person the best chance of long-term success?
It may be that the die is already cast and based purely on the objectivity of results, it is time for a fresh voice. However, this is not a binary decision. Proper and due consideration needs to take place to work out the failure points of English rugby, and that includes both the person and the structure itself, otherwise the RFU might just end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.