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THE BREAKDOWN, STEVE SCOTT: England’s Eddie Jones is the most under-pressure head coach in the Six Nations

England head coach Eddie Jones.

It’s not been the greatest couple of weeks for England head coach Eddie Jones heading into next week’s Guinness Six Nations opener against Scotland.

First, his personal talisman in his time at Twickenham, Owen Farrell, went down with injury. On Wednesday Eddie said the problem will probably require surgery and make Farrell miss the entire championship.

Farrell’s recent replacement as captain, fellow Lion Courtney Lawes, is also injured. Jonny Hill, another Lion, is toiling with a stress fracture. Hyperactive but prolific wing Jonny May is also going under the knife. Manu Tuilagi has been struggling with persistent hamstring injuries. Joe Marler has Covid AGAIN.

To top it all, England had to evacuate their training camp hotel in Brighton on Tuesday. Smoke billowing from a manhole in the street outside “exploded like a bonfire”, in Eddie’s words.

The English weren’t ever in danger, mercifully, but they had to decamp to emergency overnight accommodation. “There were a few uncomfortable beds,” said Jones. A team bonding meeting was apparently convened by Maro Itoje (who it seems will be captain at Murrayfield) in a pub.

Jones laughed it all off at Wednesday’s Six Nations launch. He even suggested that he and his squad liked the disruption as it kept them “challenged” and on their toes. Eddie didn’t look like a man under pressure.

But make no mistake, Jones is under more pressure than any other coach in the Six Nations this year.

2021 was a disaster with losses to all three other ‘home’ nations

Last year’s championship was an absolute disaster for England. It’s doubtful any England coach in the pro era would have got away with defeats to Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It was the first time that had happened in the same championship since the early 1970s.

Jones has had his 6 Nations successes at England – a Grand Slam to start in 2016, two four-win championship titles in 2017 and 2020. But he’s also had two fifth places, in 2018 and last year. Had he been head coach in the round-ball code, he’d be gone.

But for a brief flurry of speculation, it seems that his job is not in doubt. There were a few stories before the Autumn Tests focusing on his over-loyalty to some players and the extreme turnover of assistant coaches during his tenure.

But Eddie’s always been a master at re-inventing himself. The conservative gameplan of last spring was ditched in the autumn.

Although Jones didn’t seem entirely enthusiastic about it, Marcus Smith was given the reins at 10. With Farrell hurt, and a few old stagers struggling, Jones blooded Freddie Steward at full-back, brought in Alex Dombrandt and Raffi Quirke, even picked Exeter’s Sam Simmonds at last.

With Smith bringing his superior skill-set and edge – and notably being carefully managed in stress situations – England suddenly looked threatening again.

The way it always seem to go with Eddie

Eddie Jones was head coach of Australia from 2001-2005.

Could it be that Jones has nixed what has been the recurring narrative of his long coaching career? Everywhere else he’s been – and it’s many places – there’s been early, glowing success, followed by a levelling out. Then his particular methods start to wane until the whole thing goes sour.

This is common in coaches in any sport and particularly rugby. Recently in Scotland, Richard Cockerill’s time at Edinburgh is a great example. Cockers is of course now Jones’ lieutenant at England.

Regular readers of this column know that I’m quite fond of Eddie. This stems from years ago when he was hilariously withering about Matt Williams, the hapless ex-Scotland coach, when Jones coached the Wallabies in a couple of November tests at Murrayfield and Hampden. He was right on the money with his opinion there.

The wind-ups and the barbs, I think, are great copy – rather more important to me than most observers, I’ll concede. They only work if anyone’s stupid enough to be wound up by them, and generally opposition players and coaches are not.

Invariably, Eddie is generous and respectful to opposition after the game – yes, even when his team stuck 60-plus on Vern Cotter’s Scotland in 2017.

There was one time he lost his temper with us, but that came when some numpties abused him on a train home after the 2018 game.

Another poor campaign, he’s in trouble

Although there are occasional grumbles, there’s no real alternative to Gregor Townsend for Scotland.

But no matter how much Eddie is a decent guy – “in real life” – doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s under the most pressure of any 6 Nations coach this year.

Keiran Crowley is just in the door with Italy. Fabien Galthie is further down the road than Eddie in converting to youth, and doing it successfully.

Gregor Townsend is established as Scotland’s best coach in the pro era and there’s no real alternative that I can see. Another mid-ranking season with missed chances will get some of us grumbling again, but I don’t see him moving on, voluntarily or not, in the foreseeable future.

Andy Farrell’s Ireland were the most successful international team of 2021 – although I’d have liked to see them play South Africa. Wayne Pivac led Wales to last year’s championship.

Another poor campaign, with England’s unmatched resources, would surely have some nervous fingers drumming. The World Cup, usually the tipping point for international coaches, is only next year. Could England really make a change? They’ve done it before at late notice.

I’d be sad if it were to happen because Eddie is always good value. England have the potential to win this Six Nations, no question. But they also have the potential to be fifth again. That’s a cliff-edge for the adventurous sort.

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