Eddie Jones Q&A

Ahead of the 2009 RBS Six Nations, Saracens director of rugby Eddie Jones assesses the divide between the hemipsheres. Peter Bills asks the questions.

Is it too simplistic to say there is again a considerable gap between the southern and northern hemispheres in rugby?
If you looked at the 2007 World Cup quarter-finals weekend and saw New Zealand and Australia being beaten by France and England, you would have said there was no gap. But things have changed; certainly the balance is back with the southern hemisphere. The ELVs have probably been a factor because the southern hemisphere played the free kick law and they’re fitter and better skilled. But I don’t think it is just a matter of fitness. In the southern hemisphere, they’re better skilled, they play the game on their feet more and can play the ball out of contact much more because their body angles are better. I think the game in Europe over the last three years has allowed some sloppy habits to come in; players have been allowed to go off their feet so much at the breakdown. A prime example of this was in the England/New Zealand game at Twickenham in November. The New Zealand clean out (at the breakdown) was far superior to England’s and therefore they got quick ball whereas England don’t get quick ball. The ELVs have probably heightened the fitness and skill levels because the southern hemisphere sides have had six months advantage to take a bit of a jump forward.

So how do you see the situation in 12 months time?
The northern hemisphere sides will have improved immeasurably. In the first half of the Premiership season in England, the demand for players to stay on their feet has meant the skill factor has improved enormously. Now, that needs to translate to the harder and faster game at international level but I am sure that will happen. In 12 months’ time, I forecast those differences will be marginal again.

What did you think of England’s style in the autumn internationals?

I think they tried to play in what I’d call a very old fashioned way. What I mean by that is, they tried to play wide and expansive when they didn’t create space. The southern hemisphere sides are much better at creating space and then taking it. Most of the tries New Zealand score are through defences, not around them. After they go through them, they might go around whereas a lot of the thinking here is that you have to go around a defence. But basically, you don’t do that in Test rugby. You’ve got to go through a defence before you can go around it and I think that is a major difference between the two hemispheres.

IRN: Is fitness a key factor in this?
Fitness is one point but I think its skill and a real understanding of how the game is played now. That is a major difference. The southern hemisphere sides are very good at keeping going, knowing when to run and when to kick, They’re further down the track than the northern hemisphere sides in that because they’ve had six months advantage in playing the game under the ELVs.

Have you changed your thoughts on the ELVs? You’ve never been a huge fan, have you?
I still don’t think they have added greatly to the game. I don’t think the game is too bad now. We are getting people to play the game more on their feet. If you are skilled enough, you get quick ball and if you’re not, you don’t get it. As for the lineout changes, I don’t think they have aided the game at all. In fact, I think they have taken a bit of invention out of the game. Not having a maul is a significant way of making the game simpler but every time we make the game simpler we run down the track of becoming an entertainment game. But rugby is a contest for the ball and we’ve got to keep that going. I still think we should be able to maul legally. By all means, be harder on making the maul legal. Sure, you can’t maul legally when you’ve got the ball in your hands and four or five players in front of you are blocking off the opposition. In no definition is that a legal maul. But having the ball in that phase of play and being able to drive forward on your feet is a legitimate way of taking the ball forward in my book and it adds variety to the game.

Aren’t we just talking here about the game being refereed differently?
I think that is a factor, definitely. Referees need to be encouraged to referee to the laws of the game and for sides to come into line with that. Alain Rolland (the Irish referee) put four England players in the sin bin against New Zealand and maybe it could have been six. If players are going to transgress then you have got to be hard on them. That is the way to sort out the game.

So you wouldn’t have any complaints about those four sin bins?
Not at all. In the end, if we stray down that path, these players won’t get selected because countries won’t survive picking players like that. They just won’t win games. But because rugby has always been in a lot of ways a gentlemanly sport, referees have always looked at it like that and there has always been an intrinsic motivation to keep 15 on the field. If we get away from that notion and understand if a bloke transgresses, cynically or professionally, then he’s going to get himself penalised and sent off the field for a time, then players won’t do it. You’ve got to encourage officials to referee the laws and then after the game, endorse their actions. We’ve seen referees historically who have gone out to endorse the laws and have been panned afterwards.

Does it come down to skills or cynicism on the part of players?

Well, when you look at the skills of players like Richie McCaw and Rodney So’oialo and compare them to the England No 7 and No 8, there just isn’t any comparison. Everyone criticises McCaw and he takes it to the letter of the law but if he does it once too much, put him in the sin bin. It doesn’t matter who he is.

So a lot of this could be sorted out without changing the laws, just by endorsing those laws that already exist?
Yes, endorsing the laws and endorsing how you want the game to be played.

What is your considered view of the individual northern hemisphere sides as the Six Nations gets under way?
Both England and France are going to get stronger, Ireland will find a way forward, Scotland are making some progress and Wales are probably as energetic as any team. When all that happens, you will find it will be a much more even contest. But it’s true that the best two teams in the world at the moment are New Zealand and South Africa by a long way.

Well, South Africa has now won a World Cup and yet most of those blokes are still playing. It’s quite incredible that guys with perhaps six or even seven more years Test rugby in them have already had the experience of winning a World Cup. Yet they have got massive amounts of rugby ahead and they will continue to be good. As for New Zealand, the ELVs suit their style of play, without a doubt, and they play it well. They are powerful, athletic and have great fluidity. New Zealand players are definitely brought up with a good instinctive feel for the game, certainly more so than in Britain and Ireland.

What are the reasons for that?
There are some key environmental issues here that make a difference. For example, I took a session for Saracens at Barnet one night before Christmas. It was a cold, wet night and the mud was thick. You were struggling to keep your feet and it’s very hard to practise catch and pass skills. It reinforced for me the fact that environment has got a lot to do with it.

What can be done about it?
If it were me, I’d be looking at setting up indoor facilities for kids to train in, to put some money into it so that you can do 15 or 20 minutes real quality skill work on a synthetic surface. Those are the things you have really got to look at to improve the skill level. Right now, the attraction is to do simpler skills, more collision skills and more tackling than the intricate skills. That is one of the chief differences. You have only got to look at, for instance, the back three that played for England in the autumn Tests. They’re all good, ball running players but none of them have a great feel for the game. Whereas you compare the New Zealand, South Africa or Australia guys in those positions and they’ve got a better feel for the game of where the space is.

Can that be coached?
Yes, I think it can but it comes down to how you are coached as a kid. I will give you a personal example of the High School I went to in Australia. The three Ellas were there, Mark, Gary and Glen, and we played touch rugby every PE lesson. As a result, the Ellas were all very good ball players and their skills were honed because they were just playing game situations. By doing so, more and more, they became better and better. It’s the same in New Zealand. Kids play games with the ball in hand for years. But over here you hear stories where kids go to rugby and just concentrate on defence or on collision skills rather than concentrating on intricate skills because the environment is so difficult.

Who do you like as a coach here?
I think Wales are a well coached side. Of the club sides, Toulouse are obviously well coached, too. They play lovely rugby and the thing that strikes you when you watch them is that they are so sound in their basics. Then, all of a sudden, they do one brilliant thing and it makes everyone think they are a fantastic side. But you look at them, also Stade Francais, Clermont Auvergne…they’re all well coached. In Ireland, Leinster are also a well coached side and they play a nice style of rugby. In Wales, The Ospreys to a degree, too… In the English Premiership, Gloucester are a nicely coached side, I think they try to play. For me, their No. 10, Ryan Lamb, is the best outside half in England. I would be picking him as the No. 10 for England because he has got a feel for the game.

Is he fragile?

You’ve got to test him, bring him through. I haven’t seen a young No. 10 that’s not – they all are to a degree. But he senses space, he knows when and where to put people into space and he’s got a nice feel for the game. He’s also cheeky. To me, he’s like a young Matt Giteau. For me, England have got to bring him through. He’s going to have some dark days but he will come through.

Do you think he has got more than Danny Cipriani?
As a No. 10, yes, because he’s got a feel for the game; he knows where to pass, when to pass, how to pass whereas to me, Cipriani is a brilliant instinctive player. He might turn into quite a good No. 10 but I think his skill is beating people, not putting others into space. A 10’s job essentially is to make other people look good. I’d play Cipriani at No. 15, Lamb at No. 10. I think Lamb could develop a reasonable kicking game, that’s not beyond him at all. So you could play a number of ways and if we go back again to how the game is going to be played, you want to be able to develop a team that can play a number of ways under the current laws. You need players who can kick or run, play short or wide. Having the ability to sense the need for those opportunities at different moments in a game is critical.