The controversial omission of Dylan Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Mike Brown and Danny Care by Eddie Jones points to a changing of the guard in English rugby, one that reflects the changes in the way the game is played.
Rejecting a group who consistently performed to a high standard in first two years of the World Cup cycle, but have since been cast aside, has allowed Jones to mould a squad that looks far more athletic and dynamic ball in hand. That said, the return of Dan Cole and Joe Marler to fold, having been out of favour in 2018, illustrates that the door is never fully closed. Form is key.
Recently, Eddie Jones used the analogy of NFL and football to explain the differences between ‘structured’ and ‘unstructured’ play. The ratio between the two has, he says, changed in the last 12 months. Resultingly, Jones believes pace, power and tactical kicking are the key to World Cup victory. This conviction has informed his RWC squad selection.
“The game keeps changing. I see this game now where it is basically a mixture of NFL and soccer. You have got the first three phases that are basically all power and precision,” in which Jones suggests set plays and predictable, manipulable phases allow for rehearsed moves comparable to NFL ‘plays’, “then you have the kick-return game which then becomes football… we’ve gone to having a more X-factor type fullback who can be more commanding in that more unstructured rugby.”
This analysis of the game should obviously be taken with a pinch of salt. Jones loves to publicly demonstrate his knowledge, and this has developed into an evident tactic in his dealings with the media. Who can forget his claim that Jack Nowell would be used as an extra forward?
Whilst disarming and deliberately headline generating, there is undoubtedly truth in his assessment. Elliot Daly recently suggested the game has become, “65 per cent unstructured to 35 per cent structured”. In that environment a ballplayer in the backfield who can exploit space (think Daly, Barrett, McKenzie, Beale or Hogg) is a massive advantage.
Outside centre is another position where the increased pace of the game has influenced Jones’ selection. Both Henry Slade and Jonathan Joseph are quick, powerful and classy distributors. With Tuilagi a physical option at inside centre, having kicking and creative options at 13 and 15 has become a priority, allowing Jones to alleviate some of the pressure on Owen Farrell.
Having established this, the decision not to take Danny Cipriani or Alex Goode may seem more explicable than ever. They are two of Europe’s best operators in broken play. However, they fail to match two of Jones’ other key criteria, namely abrasiveness and athleticism. Both are elegant runners, but lack the out and out pace of Daly, or the physicality of Joseph and Farrell. He has made up his mind on both players, England fans must assume he has his reasons.
Jones is a clever coach; his observations speak to a sport that is rapidly evolving. Who is most able to identify and adapt to emerging trends will have an instant advantage over rivals at the World Cup. Marginal, tactical gains may never have been more important. Let us hope he does not live to regret his selection.
Written by Joe Ronan