Jonny factor returns to haunt Springbok guru Jones
It is getting incestuous, this World Cup. The shadow of Jonny Wilkinson, who at least is still in the white of England, hangs over the Webb Ellis Trophy and yesterday Eddie Jones reappeared having swapped the gold of Australia for the green and gold of South Africa.
Four years ago Jones was, of course, the coach of Australia when they lost in the final in Sydney to a Wilkinson drop goal in extra time. For Jones it was the beginning of the end. He subsequently forfeited the Wallabies' job after losing eight out of nine Tests and emerged in a coaching role with Saracens in the Guinness Premiership. More recently he has been employed as a "technical adviser" to the Springboks, principally in coaching the South African backs to transfer the ball to Bryan Habana.
Jones is tipped to become director of rugby at Saracens but there again he could succeed Jake White, the Springboks' coach who thinks the World Cup final on Saturday could be his last match in charge of his country.
However, it was on the subject of Wilkinson that Fast Eddie, who is rarely short of a diatribe or two, was most interesting and he is, after all, eminently qualified to cast his chameleon eye over the form of the biggest point scorer in World Cup history. "Jonny is still a bit of a worry," Jones said, adding that the England No 10 "wasn't quite the player he was four years ago".
Jones went on: "He's probably not as dominant a player as he was in 2003 but the thing about Jonny is that he gives the England squad enormous confidence and he's still a good player defensively. You can see that guys just play better because he's out there. He has won a World Cup, he kicks reasonably well and he drops a field goal here and there. And he's tough as he showed in some of those tackles he made against Australia and France. You don't go down that channel easily and that forces you to go a little bit wider. We have seen in today's game that if you go wide then the breakdown becomes a bit of a lottery."
The Springbok centre Francois Steyn has seen enough of Wilkinson to know he could leave a significant mark on the game, however. "We have not decided yet on a special plan [for Wilkinson]," he said. "He is a key factor, but England have great forwards too. Jonny's drop goals are perfect. He brings a calmness to their team."
South Africa's scrum-half Fourie du Preez confirmed that the side were aware of the threat Wilkinson poses. "Jonny makes a huge difference when he is directing the play," he said. "Just his presence gives the guys around him a lot of confidence, so we will have to be aware of that."
Jones said that England had "improved considerably" since the record 36-0 defeat to South Africa at Stade de France in the pool stage. On that occasion Wilkinson was injured, as was Olly Barkley, and the red rose midfield axis was Mike Catt, Andy Farrell and Jamie Noon.
"England have certainly become a lot more cohesive and are playing to their strength a lot more," Jones said. "They are doing the simple things well. In 2003 Australia battled to the final whereas South Africa have not yet played as well as they might have liked to have played and that's the exciting part with one game to go."
And how will that game pan out? "South Africa will play how we need to play," Jones said. "We are able to play a tight grinding game if we need to and kick for field position. If we need to shift the ball, then we will shift the ball. That's how rugby should be played.
"It's all about getting your preparation focused this week and not letting distractions get to you. The preparation for a final is the easy bit because you have been together for six to seven weeks and it's about reinforcing the good things and not allowing negative thoughts or different views to creep in."
But they have crept in with the speculation over White's future and the timing could hardly be worse.
"The game has become a lot narrower in this World Cup and therefore the No 9 and No 10 are much more influential," Jones added. "It is not simply a question of the Springboks playing it tight in the final because of the risk of losing the ball in the breakdown. You might as well close the field down and make the pitch 15 metres wide. I think the good thing about South Africa is that we have scored tries and have been able to use the ball given the opportunity. That's going to be a significant factor in the final. If you cancel out the set piece and cancel out the defence, then your ability to score tries is going to be massive."
There are a lot of ifs there, Eddie. A few months ago a punter with Ladbrokes wagered £150,000 on South Africa to win the World Cup at 7-1. Despite the Springboks' overwhelming victory over England in Paris in the pool stage they are by no means home and dry in the final. According to the England camp, that was an entirely different game, in almost a different age and with a different team. Eddie Jones, needless to say, is not so sure about that.