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How Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell are making England into a wholly unlikeable team

Alan Quinlan


 

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Flashpoint: England’s Manu Tuilagi is shown a red card by referee Ben O’Keeffe for a tackle on Wales’ George North which Eddie Jones defended

Flashpoint: England’s Manu Tuilagi is shown a red card by referee Ben O’Keeffe for a tackle on Wales’ George North which Eddie Jones defended

PA

Flashpoint: England’s Manu Tuilagi is shown a red card by referee Ben O’Keeffe for a tackle on Wales’ George North which Eddie Jones defended

England will probably win this Six Nations, if it ever does reach a conclusion, but their behaviour on and off the field, led by a loose-lipped general and a petulant first lieutenant, will probably make them the most unlikeable team in recent memory to lift the trophy.

This England team can play rugby, there's no doubt about that, but the way they are going about their business - pushing boundaries when it comes to violence, questioning the integrity of officials and goading opponents in unprovoked episodes of poor sportsmanship - is spraying lighter fluid across a game that is already engaged in its fair share of fire-fighting.

Six weeks have passed since Eddie Jones warned a youthful French outfit to expect "absolute brutality" in the City of Love, essentially a declaration of war in a neighbouring rugby community still deeply shook by the 2018 deaths of three young players in the space of five months.

At best Jones' comments were insensitive, at worst they were dangerous.

Philippe Chauvin has been grieving every day since December 12, 2018, when his 19-year-old son Nicolas was taken from him far too soon. He was a bright Stade Francais under-age prospect, an espoir full of hope, only for a broken neck sustained in a tackle to ultimately lead to his desperately premature death.

Jones' vow of violence stung Philippe Chauvin like antiseptic on a raw wound, the heartbroken father admitting in an interview that he fears "the game is coming to resemble the 'Rollerball' film. We're heading inexorably to another death".

If there is ever an issue over which the sport should display true union, then player welfare is surely it. Jones' blinkered reaction to Manu Tuilagi's sending off last weekend was not only disrespectful to referee Ben O'Keeffe, it was damaging to a game that is desperately trying to reduce head injuries.

Tuilagi at least appeared to show some remorse after launching himself shoulder-first at a falling George North, yet Jones went the other way entirely, calling the dismissal - which has since earned the England centre a one-month ban - "absolute rubbish".

No, Eddie, absolute rubbish was suggesting the game was "13 versus 16 at the end", absolute rubbish was the RFU issuing an apology to the Kiwi referee for the defamatory comments made by their babbling coach who on this occasion has, remarkably, kept schtum.

Jones is comfortable playing the villain and it's become increasingly obvious that his players are too, with Owen Farrell, his skipper, one of the best in the world on his day, the offspring of the Irish head coach, now his chief sidekick.

A good captain shouldn't be giving away four penalties in 24 minutes - why do you think I was near the end of the queue for leadership roles in my playing days?

A good captain shouldn't be heard screeching loudest on the referee's mic, shoving Dan Biggar from behind while both are chasing a ball at full pelt, or getting repeatedly pinged for high shots.

When the head coach is defending reckless tackles and the captain has a habit of hitting high, what kind of path do you expect the rest of the squad to follow?

The Joe Marler incident appears more like a maverick's desperately misguided and inappropriate attempt at humour, but within the England camp, stemming in part from a culture at Saracens, nasty unsporting tendencies are festering.

I was a pain in the backside to play against at times but the likes of Farrell and Maro Itoje have taken the commitment to provocation to an entirely different level.

The game against Wales was not even eight minutes old when Farrell thought it appropriate to shove North on the ground after the ball had been stripped from him by Mark Wilson inches from the try-line, rubbing the near-miss in his face. There is just no need for it in the game, a sport that heralds integrity and respect as two of its core values.

Players lose their cool in the heat of the moment but incidents like these, or Itoje mockingly celebrating with Glasgow's players in October 2018, the constant roaring in opponents' faces or patting them on the back after making an error, happen far too often not to be calculated.

North, for instance, might have a monstrous presence on the Wales wing, at 6ft 4in and 110kg, but you could hardly come across a quieter player on the field; he's not the type to be in someone's ear, talking cheap and attracting that kind of attention.

This sort of behaviour has the potential to match the diving epidemic in soccer, something that could end up being so commonplace and normalised at the top of the game that kids will imitate that antagonistic behaviour when learning the sport in clubs and schools.

Farrell has studied a degree in business management and leadership, yet the approach he takes to captaining his country seems to contradict the age-old theory around setting a good example for those below to follow.

He may only be 28-years-old but Farrell has already led his team out 23 times - only three Englishmen have done it more - and scored more than 900 points in 83 Tests.

He has an envious well of passion to succeed, a desire that I love to see in players, but he needs to figure out how to handle the emotional overspills for the sake of his team and the game.

I'm sure some will accuse me of anti-English bias, of having some cheek to call out players for on-field behaviour considering how I relished contact and the niggly stuff, but this kind of behaviour is different.

Ireland aren't squeaky clean in this regard either but I watch them regularly enough to know the goading and unsporting conduct that is rife among England players is not something you see too regularly from men in green.

Despite having some of the best footballers in the game, England are not playing a lot of rugby at the moment.

There is a clear intention to push the boundaries of aggression, bordering on violent behaviour, and it needs called out.

It may well be a reaction to getting pushed around the park by the Springboks in Yokohama four months ago but whatever the cause, it needs to be addressed.

Ten days ago, World Rugby proudly announced that the World Cup exhibited a 37% decrease in tackle-related concussions, a strong indicator that the new rules framework - heavily criticised at the time by Jones - is already making a necessary difference.

Three days later you had Jones, one of the most influential men in the game, decrying a dismissal for a reckless tackle yet World Rugby still didn't feel the need to reprimand him.

It makes you wonder what Jones actually has to say to get warned publicly by the governing body.

Tuilagi's tackle could have inflicted life-changing damage on one of the sport's top players and it's exactly the type of hit that needs to be banished from the game. It shouldn't take another serious injury, or worse, for Jones to finally realise that.

Until he does, and Farrell and co learn to play with the respect and integrity the sport prides itself on, it will be almost impossible to see this England team in anything other than a bad light.

Belfast Telegraph