Eddie Jones has urged frustrated rugby fans to stick with the sport despite the spate of defensively dominant performances, with the England head coach revealing the three key areas that will help bring back the eye-catching game that captured the imagination at last year’s World Cup.
England’s progression to Sunday’s Autumn Nations Cup final against France has seen the side conquer Georgia, Ireland and Wales with a pragmatic kick-focussed approach, given the way the current breakdown laws are being applied.
But the performances have not gone without criticism, with fans calling for more adventure in England’s game and many switching off at a time when the sport is looking to gain new followers through its Amazon Prime broadcast expansion. Jones himself admitted after last weekend’s 24-13 win over Wales that his side have not “accelerated our rugby as we would have liked to”.
It has left many to question the direction that the sport is moving in, and although Jones said that talk of a ‘crisis’ within rugby falls under an “alarmist” theory that he does not support, he does feel that change is required before teams revert to the type of rugby that was on how last week.
“To me, it is always about the clarity of the laws,” Jones said. “We have got a complex, contestable game and we have got to have really good clarity of the laws and the interpretations of the laws in what we want the referee to do.
“What’s the game we want? How can we get consistency in the application of the laws? Where do we want the game to be in 20 years’ time? I think there almost needs to be two strands running. Immediately, how do we make the game better? And then looking in the longer term, are there any changes we need to make in the future for it to continue to grow as a game?”
Jones was named on World Rugby’s High Performance Rugby Committee earlier this year alongside World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus and Fabien Galthie, the France boss who he will come up against this weekend, in an effort to help shape the future of the game and ‘make the sport simpler, safer and more enjoyable for both participants and spectators’ - though he admits that they are yet to reconvene after an initial meeting several months ago.
But regardless of the progress, Jones has a three-point plan that if implemented would see referees help to speed up the game and create both space and fatigue - the two aspects he believes will generate a more attacking, appealing game.
Stating the three laws he wants officiated to a strict letter of the law, Jones said: “It’s tackler rolling away, it’s ensuring the first arriving player in attack stays on his feet, and it’s making sure the assist tackler gives a clear release, which is something that hasn’t been happening at all.
“What’s the opposite of zero tolerance? That’s where it is at the moment and we have to cope with that. That’s how it is and we try to play as well as we can under those conditions.”
The last three World Cups have offered factual evidence to back up the argument that the referees control the direction of the game. A defence-first World Cup in 2007, in which the Springboks kicked their away to a second global triumph, was earmarked as the very worst of the game in terms of attractive, attacking rugby, which proved in stark contrast to the last two World Cups that helped the sport to sparkle during its time on the big stage.
“I think there is no coincidence that the 2015 and 2019 World Cups produced good rugby,” Jones added. “I don't think anyone can argue that.
“There was a spectrum of games, good attacking games, good defensive games - and the commonality of both those performances was that the referees were together and refereeing the same interpretations, generally speaking, and there was a consistency in the application of the law.
“I think one of the reasons why it is difficult at the moment is because referees aren't getting together and there is a lack of face to face consolation of what we expect and what we need - so therefore we are getting quite wide variants of the way that the referees are applying the laws.
“Our game is so contingent on the referees and players working together, as we have a complex, contestable game. Most other ball games have taken a lot of the contest out to simplify it, but we don't want a simple game, that is the joy of our game that we want a game that can be won in a number of different ways.
“But the pressure on the ref to referee all those complex contests is getting more difficult, that is why we need more clarity in terms of interpretation of the laws and we would all be hopeful post-coronavirus period that we get clarity of the laws.”