Eddie’s Conundrum, the World Aghast!

Or: The Eddie & Brad Show!

 

Eddie Jones was hired to coach England to World Cup glory. Period.

Anything else Eddie achieves is bye-the-bye – collateral success or collateral damage. It really does not matter, as long as England win the World Cup.

Eddie Jones was something of a magician-coach. He took the complete outsiders, Japan, and showed them how to beat the mighty Springboks. He would take England and lift them out of the misery of being also-rans in the World Cup and make them great again. He would show England how to beat the All Blacks.

At least, that is how the story is supposed to go.

And it started so well!

He took over the reins of the England squad in November 2015, and immediately things started to happen. England won the Six-Nations of 2016 and with a Grand Slam too, beating all five the others easily. Their first Grand Slam since 2003.

He then took his England team off to Australia, for a Three Test series against the Antipodeans, and plenty of laughs at Michael Cheika’s expense. It was a very successful tour as England whitewashed the Wallabies, and banked their first ever three-test series victory.

England returned from Australia brimming with confidence, and Eddie’s smile could not be broader as they waited for the start of the 2016 Autumn International season.

It was another successful time for Eddie and his Poms!

He coached them to their 14th consecutive win as they beat South Africa for the first time since 2006, and then beat Fiji, Argentina, and Australia, again. England became the first team to emulate New Zealand and win all their games in a calendar year.

The 2017 Six Nations provided another championships title, but no Grand Slam this time as Eddie suffered his first defeat as English head coach when England travelled to Dublin in the final week of the Championship. They lost 13–9 in what could have seen England win their second consecutive grand slam, and a record 19th consecutive win.

In June 2017, The British & Irish Lions took away some of his starts, and Eddie took an inexperienced side on a two-test series tour to Argentina. His squad had 18 uncapped players, 8 of which were 20 years old or younger. Eddie was “building for the future,” we were told.

England won the series against the Pumas 2–0 with a 38–34 victory in the first test followed by a 35–25 victory in the second.

2017 Autumn Internationals saw Eddie’s England winning all three of their tests, 21–8 against Argentina, 30–6 against Australia and 48–14 over Samoa.

Eddie was living the coach’s dream. He was a sought-after guest speaker at banquets and seminars, he was invited to all kinds of glamorous functions, and his smiling face was all over the rugby pages of the media and magazines.

It was Jones-Time, in a big way.

On the 17th of January the world was told that the English RFU was so pleased with Eddie and his performance as coach that they had decided to extend his contract through to August 2021. He would stay on after the 2019 World Cup, and that England would appoint his long-term successor sometime in 2020 so that Eddie could “mentor” him to take over the job at the end of 2021.

It was all sunshine and roses in the England Rugby garden.

About then things started to go wrong.

The 2018 Six Nations Championship saw England finish in their worst ever position in the Six Nations, in fact it was their worst run since the 1983 Five Nations Championship, finishing fifth in the table with just victories over Italy (46–15) and Wales (12–6). England’s losses to Scotland, France and Ireland meant they lost three consecutive matches for the first time since 2014.

Suddenly the English media, the same media scribes who had fawned over Eddie and his magical coaching mysteries, began to question whether he was really as good as they had said he was.

Suddenly Eddie, everyone’s favourite Garden Gnome, was not smiling nearly as much. Suddenly Eddie was cantankerous, taciturn, camera-shy, and rather obnoxious towards any reporter who asked difficult questions.

People started asking whether his coaching methods were perhaps a little too physical and aggressive. Two of his England squad were injured during a squad practice and were forced to miss club games. Another was hurt so badly that he missed some months of rugby.

Players and clubs started to complain that Eddie’s sports scientists and conditioning coaches were interfering with the preparation and conditioning of players at the club level. Clubs would prepare a player to peak for specific games, only to find that the England coaches had contacted the player directly, and instructed him to follow a different coaching regimen to the one required by his club coaches. Eddie’s guys wanted the player to peak for a Test match, while the club wanted him ready for a crucial Premiership game. The two were at odds, yet the clubs were paying the player’s salary!

Players started to complain about both mental and physical fatigue.

Clubs started to kick against the England management’s interference!

Players who required rest, surgery, or rehabilitation scheduled the same during the approaching 2018 off-season, and their availability for England selection was restricted.

Eddie was no longer a magician, nor nearly as popular as he had been at the end of 2017.

To make matters worse, Eddie now has to pick a team to go and tour South Africa in June!

Back in December of 2017 Eddie was supremely confident that his England boys would walk all over South Africa. The Springboks were going to get slaughtered!

Now things are looking just a little less certain.

And Eddie’s future as England coach is also looking less certain! There is already much talk about that contract extension to August 2021 being overly generous, and that failure at the 2019 World Cup should see Eddie get the Order of The Boot!

The media are already discussing who should succeed him after the 2019 Rugby World Cup!

This has rattled Eddie.

Already facing depleted stocks due to long term injuries and rehabilitation requirements, Eddie is finding that players are withdrawing their availability for selection in order to have time off from the game, simply to get over fatigue!

But he has to pick a team to go to South Africa!

Eddie desperately needs a winning team, to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the adoring England rugby fans. To carry out his promise of crushing the Springboks, and then beating the All Blacks.

And a desperate man turns to desperate measures.

The first of Eddie’s desperate measure was to head off to New Zealand, figuratively speaking, and to look for some disaffected Kiwis that might be deemed English. Perhaps he could recruit one or two PommyKiwis, or is it KiwiPoms?

The first, and most likely name that popped into his head was that of Brad Shields.

Brad, you see, was born of English parents. That makes him English!

Despite having been born, raised, and schooled in New Zealand. Despite having played for New Zealand at U/17 and U/20 level, winning the 2011 IRB Junior World Championship in Italy as part of the New Zealand team. Despite having been part of the All Black squad in 2012 and again in 2016. Despite never having played rugby for an English club or team, Brad Shields is ENGLISH!

He has signed to join Wasps at the end of the current Super Rugby season, when his contract in New Zealand expires.

And, in Eddie Jones’ mind, that is enough for him to be chosen to play for England, in June 2018!

Shields has not attended a single England practice to date. Brad Shields is still under a central contract to New Zealand Rugby and the Hurricanes. He has legal commitments to those who pay his salary! (The English RFU say they will challenge that contract in court if needs be!)

You see, Eddie sees him as some Knight in Shining Armour, who will ride in to save Eddie and England from ignominy in the June tests against the Springboks.

Whatever you or I might feel about the matter does not really matter. Eddie and the RFU are desperate, and they will grab at every straw that is available, as long as that straw is aligned with their cause. The hell with the contracting systems and structures in other countries, the hell with the rugby competitions and teams, the national requirements and the good of the game elsewhere. The hell with the goals and aspirations of their homegrown talent. It is all about England winning!

Except……..

Some of England’s own are starting to object!

Sir Clive Woodward

Sir Clive Woodward, England’s World Cup winning coach from 2003 does not like it at all. Woodward insists that it is wrong to make Shields a special case ahead of homegrown talent. Woodward said in his Daily Mail column: “He (Shields) is fully entitled to declare for England, but that doesn’t mean others should be brushed aside in the stampede to select him.

“It makes zero sense and is intrinsically wrong. If he tours South Africa it will smack of a ‘transfer’ in soccer in the January window where players sign on deadline day and play on Saturday.”

“Shields is a product of the New Zealand system, won the world championship with their under 20s, has been the captain of the Hurricanes and been talked about as a possible All Black over the years.

 “Why not promote from the English game, the Premiership and the RFU’s outstanding Under-20 system? The back row needs some surgery but England have loads of options — Jamie Gibson at Northampton, the Curry twins at Sale and Jack Willis at Wasps to name but a few.”

“This is not what international rugby is all about and hands a psychological advantage to New Zealand, who secretly will be finding it highly amusing – no more than that.”

Woodward also said rushing Shields into the England setup would be a “slap in the face” for a player like Chris Ashton who is not picked because he plays his rugby in France.

“Ashton has been scoring tries for fun at Toulon, breaking the Top 14 record last month with power to add. He is playing magnificently …  Yet Ashton, who played in 215 competitive matches for Saints and Sarries in 11 seasons in which he lit up English rugby, is not considered eligible because he is now based 90 minutes away in Toulon.

“The immediate promotion of Shields would be an opportunist deviation from the standards we have set ourselves and which many players have adhered to. A worrying, confusing precedent that threatens the vital bond between England players that is the lifeblood of international rugby.”
Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, the man who convinced Shields to join Wasps on a lucrative contract and fill the void created by the departure of England stalwart James Haskell has also come out in favour of Jack Willis:  “Jack has been the break through player for us this season and is performing every week and building all the time. He is still so young and is playing at a level well above his age with good physicality in defence and carries really well in attack. He is also very strong over the ball at the breakdown and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see him in the white shirt of England in the summer. If he does then he really deserves it.”

Martin Johnson

World Cup-winning captain Martin Johnson has expressed his concern over what he perceives to be a lack of depth in English rugby.

Johnson made the comments whilst speaking to The Times in the wake of the RFU’s insistence that Hurricanes flanker Brad Shields would be picked by England for the upcoming June tour of South Africa.

It led former lock, and ex-England coach, Johnson to question why England couldn’t produce more top-end talent of its own and had to desperately go searching elsewhere.

“We should be producing more top-end players,” Johnson told The Times.

“I don’t know what the answer is. There’s more people employed in developing rugby talent in this country than ever before – so why is it not coming through? It is a concern. We don’t seem to have the depth.

“Who’s this guy they’re signing from New Zealand?

“My answer is: there’s a reason they’re doing it [bringing in Shields]. This has been coming for a while. Eddie’s doing it because he obviously doesn’t think he’s got enough talent in England.”

Johnson went on to say:

 “I have been worried a while – where are the next players? If you have a team that’s going well and they play until they are quite old, by definition, the next generation are not coming through, not getting a chance.

I’m sure some people would say they are but that they are not getting a chance to play because the Premiership clubs are just bringing in foreign players.”

The whole issue of selecting Brad Shields for England raises questions about double standards, about a lack of internal development programmes, about expediency above rationality.

It seems to be about saving face for Eddie and some administrators, and not really about what is good for rugby.

The Shields saga has come at a time where is much debate about the selection of players from foreign shores to represent adopted countries rather than that of their birth.

In an 8th May article titled “World Cup Qualification Saga” Planet Rugby’s Loose Pass commented on the situation.

They quoted Tahiti fielding of two French-born backs, scrum-half Guillaume Brouqui, who scored a try, and fly-half Andoni Jimenez, who kicked a penalty, as their team beat the Cook Islands in a World Cup qualifier.

The Cook Islands filed a complaint. It took months, but World Rugby investigator Tim Gresson found, neither player had a parent or grandparent born in Tahiti. He was also “completely satisfied” that the two players had not lived in Tahiti consecutively for 36 months. Tahiti’s win was overturned.

That judgement came in a difficult week for World Rugby, following the farcical finish to the European World Cup qualifying round which saw a Romanian referee tasked with blowing a Spain-Belgium game in which, if Spain lost, Romania would qualify for the World Cup. Spain duly did lose, victims of an extraordinary penalty count against them, and Romania were through.

The furore surrounding that game is already public knowledge. Five of the Spanish players were suspended for a cumulative 121 weeks for their part in protesting the referee’s actions.

World Rugby also ruled that the Belgium-Spain game be replayed.

Then things started going really really wrong.

Belgium hooker Victor Pacquet, was born and raised in France and plays for Charente in France’s Pro D2. He does have Belgian ancestry but it is too distant to render him eligible for national selection. He is not a Belgian citizen. So Belgium should be disqualified from the World Cup qualifying.

Spain’s teams feature a staggering number of French names, but the most interesting ones were those of Mathieu Belie and Bastien Fuster, both former France U20 representatives, and so Spain may be disqualified from World Cup qualifying.

And there’s Romania. That most Romanian-sounding Sione Faka’osilea, once represented his homeland of Tonga at Sevens, rendering him ineligible. So Romania may be disqualified from World Cup qualifying.

Assume those three are disqualified, Russia would qualify by default, and face Japan in the tournament opener, while Germany and Portugal would be left scrapping it out for the repechage spot.

Russia was disqualified in the past for including a sprinkling of South Africans in their ranks.

Portugal have been assiduous in their fielding of Russian sounding names in their teams, and the odd Aussie too, remember Rohan Hoffman, the much lambasted Super Rugby referee? He played centre for Portugal!

Recently we have seen a host of Strausses, Nels, Standers, Kockots, Geldenhys’s, Speddings, Bothas, playing Test rugby with distinctly South African accents.

The eligibility rules will change from the start of 2021 onwards whereafter you will have had to live in a country non-stop for five years instead of three, or to have lived there for an accumulated ten years throughout one’s lifetime. These changes cannot come soon enough.

As Agustin Pichot said at the announcement of the changes: “National team representation is the reward for devoting your career, your rugby life, to your nation and these amendments will ensure that the international arena is full of players devoted to their nation, who got there on merit.”

You have to hope so.

There are a lot of players in a lot of countries who work hard to get into the team of their birthplace and who then find it crushing to see an import take their place. The end to, or the increased stringency in, eligibility rules cannot come soon enough.

We await the outcome of the Shields saga with baited breath, and just a little bit of distaste!