The anti-climactic culmination of this year’s Six Nations Championship will have been felt painfully in the ranks of English rugby. The disappointing slump in form of Eddie Jones’ squad – starting with surprise defeats in Scotland and France – was concluded at the hands of Ireland on Saturday.
Telegraph sports writer, Paul Hayward, remarked that England had been “robotic” during this year’s competition. And it is hard to disagree with him. Many will point to the rigid system Jones has asked his team to play in. Jones would predictably ask another question: “what do the stats say?” It’s a question that has become indicative of his coaching style and unfortunately is not an alien one in modern sport.
There is some merit to the idea of “winning the numbers game”. From a coaching perspective it provides comfort and, with it, a greater certainty of succeeding with a tactical approach. Jones took over an England squad that had been unceremoniously dumped out of their own World Cup at the group stages. The squad presided over by Stuart Lancaster seemed characterised by uncomfortable uncertainty in its selection and tactics.
Something needed to change. England needed to be toughened-up. Streamlined. Honed into an efficient winning machine. The solution? For Jones, it was twofold: fitness and figures. His words in the build-up to the Six Nations, as well as during the competition, were both indicative of a man who places these concepts high on his coaching agenda.
One only has to listen to the man in press conferences and interviews. Whilst Lancaster carried the air of a firm but fair schoolteacher, Jones draws more comparisons with an army drill sergeant. Speaking in early-February this year, he spoke about the “tactical periodisation” he had implemented during his time as the coach of Japan, who famously stunned South Africa at the same World Cup which saw England flounder at the hand of Australia and Wales. Jones professes to have developed this tactical periodisation which, he says, has “has allowed us [England] to play with greater intensity and that has been shown by our performances in the last 20 minutes of matches”. Watching England over the past two years, it is hard to argue with this statement, and it has undoubtedly contributed to the much-improved side that came into the Six Nations.
Jones’ words betray another aspect of his coaching philosophy, both in rugby and throughout the sporting world. Technology gives us the means to record and process information like never before. A game of rugby, football or cricket can either be watched on a pitch or recorded on an excel spreadsheet. Patterns are spotted, trends emerge and potential advantages are identified. The laptop has become as frequent a sight as a water bottle in the dressing rooms of teams around the word. Television cameramen covering England rugby matches seem obliged to repeatedly cut to the image of Jones, headset on, sitting in a glass-fronted booth surrounded by a bank of support staff and computer monitors. Indeed, the incumbent may change to Ireland’s Vern Cotter or Scotland’s Gregor Townsend but the image is the same. Coaching from the keyboard is very much in vogue.
Numbers Cloud Judgement
Listening to him in days before England took on Scotland explain his side’s apparent lack of discipline belied the importance he placed on statistics:
“All the smart guys tell you [the number of penalties committed during a game] has got to be under 10 but the data doesn’t show you that. The data shows the most successful teams do infringe.”
Jones’ approach is not a novel one on a wider sporting scale. Under Andy Flower, English cricket embraced a statistical approach and it helped them to become the World’s Number One ranked Test team. However, as a conversation between former England Captain Michael Vaughan with a member of Flower’s coaching staff shows, the numbers game also can cloud judgment. Standing on the outfield before a day’s play during the fourth Ashes test in 2014 at the MCG, with Australia chasing down a modest England total for victory, Vaughan was asked by the nameless coach which bowler he would open with. Pointing at two large foot holes, Vaughan replied that Monty Panesar should certainly start at one end. The reply? “You can’t bowl Monty. A spinner hasn’t taken four wickets in a second innings at the MCG for about 40 years”. The inviting footholes were ignored and Australia cruised to victory.
Statistics have the power to restrict as well as enable sporting success. They promote a certain formulaic way of playing. England’s rugby in their last three matches has been too much like a mathematic sum. In seeking statistical gains, their coach has also drilled and coached them to point where they do not seem to be thinking for themselves. Players seemed to lose their edge and were slow to react in crucial situations. An overt focus on statistical advantages is not solely to blame for these last three England performances. Numerous basic technical errors – one standout candidate being Anthony Watson’s spilling of a high kick to gift Ireland their first try on Saturday – were equally as culpable. However, Jones’ quest for statistical advantages, at least from an outsider’s perspective, seems to have permeated all aspects of his game plan. His players have been taken along for the ride and become pre-programmed robots, rather than the instinctive dynamos English supporters had hoped to see take the Six Nations by storm.
Ingoring the Intangibles
What the number crunchers will never quantify is mental strength and natural ability that has enabled international sportsmen and women to achieve such a high level of performance. Unfortunately, the support provided “the England setup” risks stifling its charges in the same breath. When Owen Farrell receives the ball and goes to kick over the top, is he doing so because there is space behind the opposition back line for Johnny May to exploit or is it because he has been told that, say, one in every five kicks results in an average gain of fifteen yards? Ultimately, we don’t know what information Jones imparts to his players and how this affects their decisions in the heat of battle. Nevertheless, the last three matches would suggest that England’s finest are thinking too much and have lost their instinctive edge.
There is an argument to be made that playing sport by numbers does work, as Billy Beane’s sporadically successful “moneyball” approach to baseball with the Oakland Athletics can illustrate. However, we should remind ourselves that Beane was operating as a general manager with the added financial factor of a salary cap, rather than an international coach like Jones who is seeking to maximise the abilities of a finite number of national players. Let’s also not forget that Bean’s approach had its glass ceiling and the “As” failed to win a World Series during his time as general manager. As Beane would famously remark, “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs”.
Victims of their own Support Network
England’s capitulation at the hands of Scotland, France and most recently Ireland are examples of a highly drilled, heavily coached and overly prepared squad becoming victims of their own support network. Statistics and complex game plans are not what got Owen Farrell to the number 10 jersey. So why should he have these at the forefront of his mind when pulling it on before a test match? Some might point to Farrell’s lack of discipline in the Murrayfield tunnel before the Scotland game as an alternative reason for his apparent lack of focus. However, when your head coach is discussing what “the data says”, it must surely have some sort of effect on your mental approach to a game?
Statistical analysis is part of a wider support network of coaching, training, psychology, nutrition and administration that surrounds all high-level sports teams around the world. They all have value but risk detracting from the mental strength, physical instinct and natural ability a player needs above all else to succeed.
With the 2019 World Cup in Japan looming large in 18 months’ time, the post-mortem of England’s nosedive in form during the second part of the Six Nations has only just begun. England’s fifth-placed finish should serve as a reminder to Jones, his peers, and the wider sporting world that statistics and sport science have their limitations. For Eddie Jones, his robots spectacularly malfunctioned at Murrayfield, the Stade de France and Twickenham – and it was not because of the snow.