At last a Six Nations title for England, and a Grand Slam at that, after four consecutive second places. Important foundations were laid by Stuart Lancaster after the embarrassing antics on and off the field at RWC 2011 in New Zealand but Jones has added a harder edge to what was in the main the same group of players.
Lancaster reconnected the elite players with the grass roots game but the ability to dominate and win games wasn’t quite there; Jones has added this vital component to a talented squad that doesn’t have any superstars although one or two are beginning to emerge.
But this hard edge is coming at the cost of some of Lancaster’s softer initiatives. First was the appointment of Dylan Hartley as captain: His dreadful disciplinary record raised many concerns and social media was buzzing with the poor example his being made captain set to others playing the game. There is no doubt that Jones would have spoken to people at the highest level at the RFU before he made his decision but it shows how important it was that England started winning again that no-one tried to change his mind. I think even the most vocal opponents of the decision have to agree that Hartley has led the team very well with hardly a flicker of the kind of behaviour that has landed him in so much hot water in the past. At the post match dinners he has acted properly if a little irreverently, referring to the RFU Council as ‘Bill and the Blazers’ and shortening his pre-prepared speeches, but his likeable character has come though and he has proved to be a popular figure.
I understand that the Captain’s Run, where the squad train on the pitch the day before the game, has been scrapped for home games on the basis that it doesn’t add anything material to the team’s preparations and that time would be better spent training at Pennyhill Park.
Another Lancaster innovation that has been lost is the team coach stopping 50 yards short of the West Stand Lion Gate so the players would walk the last stretch through a route lined by supporters. Anyone that has witnessed the players’ arrival would have seen them looking fixedly ahead usually with headphones blocking out the noise, and it is clear that although it was nice for the fans to see their heroes, it couldn’t be anything but a distraction from their mental preparation for the game ahead.
At the post match dinners the players are now arriving later, sometimes after the meal has started, and they leave as soon as they have finished. The players are still as friendly and as approachable as ever, but we all know that these are functions they could do without during a tournament.
But in mitigation, the open training session at Twickenham this season that attracted over 15,000 people was a huge success, allowing much closer and better access than could be achieved on a match day.
On to Saturday’s game and I have to say that the French crowd were as hostile as any I have witnessed. The chance to spoil an England party was one they wanted to take and throughout the match there were whistles and booing at decisions that went against Les Blues and when Farrell lined up a kick. Perhaps this all helped to motivate the players because this was the best French performance of the tournament with the wing Vakatawa and full back Spedding causing all sorts of problems.
There were a couple of things that you may not have seen on the TV after the game; The players did a lap of honour with the trophy but when they got to the the section with their family and friends, most rushed over to celebrate with them. Meanwhile, Jack Nowell got hold of a Cornish flag and draped it around his shoulders, while the Vunipola brothers shared a moment on the field to offer a prayer of thanks.
Ultimately England were deserved winners and after a celebratory glass or two we made our way to the function room. We had already had one dinner pre-match but the French like to show off their cuisine so another meal was to be served, but not until the players had arrived. A 9pm kick-off meant that everything would be delayed and it wasn’t until 1am that the England players came in. The formal speeches had to be done with Owen Farrell taking over the captain duties with Hartley having to rest after his nasty knock to the head.
It was 1:30am before dinner was served and while the French all tucked in, perhaps more used to eating so late, the English guests were a little less enthusiastic. The England players left as soon as they could and at 2:30am the rest of us were still ploughing through the menu, but it wasn’t long afterwards that we got onto our coach leaving the French players and guests to carry on eating and drinking.
So another Six Nations is over with England winning a tournament that wasn’t of the highest quality. There is a long way for the team to go and the three tests in Australia over the summer will no doubt take them several steps further along their development journey. Although I’m sure that Eddie Jones would acknowledge that this season he has built upon Lancaster’s work over the past four years, the next four will be down to him.