Bob Dwyer and Eddie Jones are two of the most successful international coaches in Rugby Union history, having both won World Cup winners’ medals. Dwyer led Australia to their first World Cup title in 1991, while Jones – having failed by a narrow margin to ambush England as Australia coach in the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney – went on to become a World Cup winner with South Africa after being appointed by Jake White as a consultant coach when they beat England in the 2007 final.
Dwyer and Jones are peas out of the same Australian pod, both of them cutting their teeth as coaches of the renowned Randwick club in Sydney, where they were also both players, Dwyer as a flanker, and Jones at hooker. They are a generation apart, Dwyer coaching Jones when he was in the Randwick and NSW squads in the late 1980s.
Dwyer also became a mentor to Jones when he left teaching to go into coaching, passing on the rigorous approach and high standards that are a hallmark he has carried so successfully into his tenure as England coach. With one Six Nations Grand Slam and a landmark series victory over Australia to his name after little more than a year, Jones is now pitching for a second Slam and also setting a world record winning run.
Should England win Saturday’s Calcutta Cup clash against Scotland they will equal New Zealand’s 18-match run – with a world record and a repeat Six Nations clean sweep within reach if they go on to beat Ireland in Dublin on March 18.
However, despite saluting Jones for what he has achieved with England – including contradicting the widely held view that the Red Rose squad is short of world-class players – Dwyer does not believe that they would beat New Zealand if they faced the world champions now.
He points to England’s struggle to counter Italy’s no-ruck tactics in the first half of last week’s controversial tangle at Twickenham to be hard evidence to back up that conclusion. Also, despite Dwyer’s strong bond with Jones, who he says is, “a good friend of mine and a very fine coach”, he is firmly in Italy’s corner.
Dwyer’s view is that there is no need for a law change, and that Jones’ frustration at Italy’s tactic was more than likely sparked by his anger at the poor grasp of the laws among England’s senior players.
“I don’t understand why players don’t understand the laws – that’s got me stumped. What I don’t understand also is a lack of respect for teams playing within the law, especially when there are so many teams who play outside the law, and get grudging respect for it. Yet, when a team try to play in a thoughtful, intelligent way (like Italy) they get criticised. It’s astonishing.”
He continues: “To the great credit of Italy they totally exposed England. I hope there’s been a huge amount of praise for the Italian coaching team, and the application of it by the players.”
Dwyer says England were much slower to react than the All Blacks would have been: “Every defensive strategy presents potential advantages for the attack. So too with this. It would have taken New Zealand one tackle, or two at most, to work it out.”
He explains: “The no-ruck is a dangerous tactic because you are leaving areas unguarded. Against a team like New Zealand – where every player is schooled to keep going forward interminably, and to do it with urgency – if you don’t have people in behind the tackle they will hit through it so hard and fast that they rip you apart.”
Dwyer adds: “I would consider it to be something missing from (England’s) preparation, because a prime opportunity in attack went missing. Nathan Hughes is a very good player, and was the first to try to expose it in the first-half by going straight through the middle, but others didn’t follow.”
He says that England discovered, eventually, that they had the remedy in their own hands. “The fact that they were able to expose Italy so ruthlessly in the second half bears this out. There were five second-half tries from England, so it didn’t prevent them from playing rugby when they worked out what to do! However, they were helped because the referee was extremely tolerant – although I still can’t work out how he allowed players to ask him about the laws.”
“If you win 18 Test matches in a row when you play almost every nation, it is an outstanding effort – although not playing New Zealand is quite significant. There are some subtle changes to this England team. The first is selection, and the second is that the speed of realignment in attack and defence is probably as good as New Zealand’s.”
He stresses the tactical significance: “The two things that are totally important in the game are support and realignment. People practice realignment in defence but heaps of them ignore it in attack. England are very quick at getting back into position in attack, plus they run straight and stand closer than before. It is a big improvement.”
That is why Dwyer thinks England are in a promising position going into the Scotland game, although he believes Ireland will be a tougher proposition.
“Scotland have made huge improvements, and their backs have been very good, but the pack probably lacks the grunt to win at Twickenham. They have reasonable go-forward but not great, and while the Gray brothers are good, they are probably not quite World XV contenders.
“Ireland give the impression that they are not quite there, but they keep coming at you. They have a very good young front rower in Tadgh Furlong, who is extremely strong if a bit green. However, if you beat New Zealand one year, and almost beat them the time before that, you’re not doing too much wrong.”
However, ask who he would put his money on if England played New Zealand tomorrow and there’s no hedging from Dwyer.
“New Zealand. It might depend on home advantage because England tend to get the rub of the green at Twickenham, but right now I’d back New Zealand. They have got more players, especially through the Pacific Island connection, with footwork, agility and acceleration to open up defences – and as soon as they get in behind, you are in serious trouble.”
He warns: “With New Zealand there is no old-fashioned scrum-half play where they take their time to get set before launching the next wave of an attack. They are mad dogs, and are working to get into a position to expose you. They might open up the English defence if the referee insists on fast ball and they can’t slow it down.”
Dwyer endorses Jones’ policy of going back to a traditional bruising England pack. “Eddie is moving towards a big, strong England team and I don’t disagree with that. There is no doubt that good big guys are better than good little guys – but they’ve got to be good. I really like Hughes at No.8, and they’ve got him a lot fitter than he was when he was in New Zealand. He looks to me to be as good as Billy Vunipola. I also like James Haskell at openside, and the England second row options are very good and athletic.”
However, when he gets down to assessing an England line-up against the All Blacks, it is stacked towards the world champions.
“If you do the comparison player-for-player, New Zealand are ahead in most areas. Brodie Retallick is more effective and damaging than any of the England locks. Jerome Kaino is a very good blindside and although Maro Itoje is promising he would have to be at his very best to be his equal.
“Are Ben Youngs or Danny Care as good scrum-halves as Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, or Tawera Kerr-Barlow? Probably not. Is Beauden Barrett a better 10 than George Ford. Yes. Mike Brown and Ben Smith are both pretty good full-backs, but Smith is that bit better. The England midfield is coming on well, but you wouldn’t want to line up Owen Farrell one-on-one against Malakai Fekitoa.”
Dwyer concludes: “It’s a game everyone wants to see, but I back New Zealand. Against that, Ireland’s win against them in the autumn shows you can win on any given day – and Ireland played stronger in the last 15 minutes than New Zealand, which is something that virtually never happens.”
Irrespective, he says he is impressed by what Jones has achieved with England. “There was not a huge amount wrong, but it needed some tinkering. Eddie is extremely smart and extremely dedicated – he works so hard it doesn’t matter what you pay him, the hourly rate is cheap.
“The adjustments Eddie has made may have been minor, but they have had a major effect. He has given the England players far greater freedom, but it is a underpinned by non-negotiable detail, such as fast realignment.”
He says clarity in selection is also a key improvement: “If there are changes in selection they are made without any nonsense, and his easy to understand directness makes it easier for players. His selection mantra is the same as mine was. Can this player develop to help us to be the number one team in the world? If the answer is no, then he cannot be in the squad. You find someone else.”
He adds: “I hear that players like being in the England team under Eddie, but they know that when it comes to rugby he is serious – and he expects them to be. So, if you don’t know what’s happening, ask and find out. And if you don’t respond to what’s being asked of you, you are not going to be there long.
“Players are comfortable with Eddie, but they are also scared of not measuring up. In my view you can be hard and tough as long as you are fair, and that there are no mixed messages. It’s about being straightforward and honest – and Eddie is brutally honest.”
Ask if Jones has an Achilles heel, and Dwyer says it is one they share in common: “What all straightforward brutally honest people have to guard against is coming across as a bit arrogant.”
He notes that direct contact between the head coach and his squad is also paramount. “One thing Eddie will not let happen is he will never get too far away from the players. Sometimes assistant coaches can become like a buffer zone, and it’s important not to let that happen because, ultimately, it’s your team and your responsibility.”
Which brings us to Dwyer’s disagreement with the widespread perception that England are a strong team, but one with a shortage of world-class players.
“They have a lot of world-class players. No team has 15 of them, however I like the midfield and wings. Elliot Daly is something else, and he adds another dimension to the backline. Itoje (above) fell out of the sky, but Eddie recognised his ability immediately and picked him.
“The locks are not in a World XV now, but with four good second rows he’s been experimenting with Itoje and Courtney Lawes at blindside so that none of them are redundant. At long kick-offs Lawes often beats the winger to the ball, which is unreal. Also, very little gets past Dan Cole at tight-head, even if he does get a lot of leeway, and Kyle Sinckler has a good shape for a No.3, and plenty of pace for a prop.”
He continues: “Farrell’s goalkicking is world-class, and whoever they play at 13 is world-class (Daly, Ben Te’o or Jonathan Joseph). Te’o can add a fair bit. His straightening into gaps is so effortless and instantaneous it looks easy, and he’s gone before people realise it. But a centre combination of Farrell and Te’o may be difficult – I doubt that New Zealand would play them together.”
Overall Dwyer says Jones has made spectacular gains: “If you take Eddie’s selections of Daly, Itoje and Te’o as each making a two per cent difference, and the speed of realignment making another four per cent, then that’s a 10 per cent improvement, which is massive. Subtle improvements count, and England have definitely got the capacity to get better because they and Eddie are not long into their journey.”
The first opportunity for England to build on that ten per cent gain and become a fully-fledged threat to New Zealand’s global domination by the 2019 World Cup comes against Scotland. And if Eddie Jones succeeds in achieving another landmark victory at Twickenham you can be sure that despite Bob Dwyer’s straightforward honesty about the Italian job, no-one will be more pleased for Jones than his old mentor from Down Under.