Eddie Jones believes rugby’s law trials have led to a rebalancing of the global game, with increased scope for teams to attack by running the ball as well as kicking.
The England head coach says “trends of the game” helped inform selection for the autumn Tests against Tonga, Australia and South Africa, with mainstays such as Saracens’ Billy Vunipola ignored as the buildup to the 2023 World Cup began in earnest.
Trial law changes this season include the 50:22 kick, meaning the attacking team throws into a lineout if a kick from inside their own half bounces before going out of play inside the opposition 22. World Rugby said the 50:22 “is intended to create space via a tactical choice for players to drop out of the defensive line”.
“We’ve seen attack grow a little bit,” Jones says of action he has watched this season, including the Rugby Championship in the southern hemisphere. “The balance between the way you go forward, between kicking and between running, has balanced out a little bit.
“So teams don’t necessarily have to kick more than the opposition to win. You can run more than the opposition to win. That balancing act, of where the game is, has become a little less clear.”
Asked to what extent this affected the shape of his latest squad, Jones says: “We look at the trends of the game … We’re not different from any other team in modern sport. We’ve all got a data analytics team. They can tell you 99.9% of the teams that are going to win based on the metrics. We’ve got the latest metrics, so we use that to help with our selection.”
The presence of back-rows such as Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrant at the expense of Vunipola may indicate a willingness to aim for more phases carrying possession rather than relying heavily on tactical kicking, the norm under Jones.
Simmonds and Dombrandt are highly mobile No 8s while Vunipola’s game is more about power, although Jones says the door is not closed to the 28-year-old.
Jones also thinks stricter refereeing of the tackle area is helping teams to gain metres by carrying instead of kicking. “The big determinants of the game are the speed of the ruck and the scrum,” Jones says. “That’s 80% of the penalties. And the ruck speed, because the referees have been refereeing the tackler rolling away very hard, and policing to a large extent the second man releasing, we’ve seen a lot more quick ball, and with quick ball we’ve seen defences under pressure … I think it’s generally created a better game of rugby, which is good.”
Jones stressed the need for referees to maintain a fair contest between attack and defence at the breakdown. “What we’ve got to ensure is that referees keep diligent on that ruck, keep diligent on the defensive side, and also diligent on the attacking side, keeping a contest,” Jones says.
“If you’re good in attack, you get quick ball, and if you’re good in defence, you get a turnover. That’s the fascinating part of the game. But every time we have it good, we get slack, and the game morphs into a slower version of itself. So we might be at the peak of the game at the moment.”
Looking ahead to perhaps the most eagerly awaited autumn Test, against the world champions on 20 November, Jones says: “South Africa have gone through a little bit of a down period after the Lions, which is quite normal for most teams. We always found in the Tri-Nations, when a team played after the Lions, they found it quite a long campaign and I think particularly with the bubble, it’s probably made it even more difficult for South Africa.
“But the way they responded, as all South African teams do, against the All Blacks [with a 31-29 win in Queensland] was absolutely outstanding. They’ve had a long season, but … we know how much they like to play against England, so that’ll be a great game for us.”
England will be operating with reduced coronavirus measures after the RFU confirmed that players and staff are above the required vaccination target of 85% that allows for the relaxation of social distancing.