The Rugby Football Union are already preparing for life after Eddie Jones, it emerged this week.
That in itself isn’t controversial. One day he will have to step aside – it just depends whether that will be at the end of his contract in 2021 or following the 2019 World Cup.
Jones is well aware of his performance criteria. The RFU have made it clear they expect England to at least reach the semi-final of the World Cup.
He was savvy in negotiating a new contract in January from a position of strength, having won 22 of his 23 Tests. Since then, having targeted the World Cup and the No1 ranking, it’s all gone awry with six defeats from the last seven matches and the pressure is on.
If he reaches the quarter-finals the RFU have a get-out-of-jail-free card, but even if England come home from Japan with the trophy I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones called it a day there.
That the RFU are considering the future is understandable; what is interesting is director of professional rugby Nigel Melville performing a public U-turn earlier this week.
Having previously stated that whoever follows Jones would need international experience, Melville has now started casting his eye over candidates in the Premiership.
Realistically Jones won’t want his employer talking openly about his successor when he still has nearly three years left on his deal. Melville is walking a tightrope, trying to clear up uncertainty and encourage domestic coaches that the door is open while Jones continues.
However, looking at the Premiership, the options are sparse. Newcastle’s Dean Richards surely won’t be considered because of his involvement in the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal, Wasps’ Dai Young doesn’t fit the mould and Bristol’s Pat Lam has experience but would have to make a big step up.
The only real options are the two outstanding coaches of recent times: Exeter Chiefs’ Rob Baxter and Saracens’ Mark McCall.
Baxter has done a fabulous job at Exeter, establishing them as Sarries’ nearest challengers, but I’m not sure he would be a good fit for international rugby. He’s old-school in a sense – a nuts-and-bolts man who likes to be hands-on.
He’s built a culture at Exeter which has been a big part of their success, and that might be why he’s not suited for England, where you get less time with players.
That’s exactly why frontrunner McCall would work: he’s more of a strategist, happy to delegate to his coaches and coordinate from above.
It’s obviously a coveted role, with a large, talented player pool to choose from and plenty of money to go around, but I wonder whether the plan of Jones grooming his successor before relinquishing control might be a hard sell for the RFU.
Steve Borthwick has done a great job under Jones as forwards coach over the past two years and might fancy the step up. Andy Farrell has also been touted previously, but signed an extension as Ireland’s defence coach in May and could more feasibly succeed Joe Schmidt as head coach.
What is sure is that by publicly “seeing who is available and interested” the week before the autumn internationals the RFU are heightening pressure on Jones. He needs results over the next month to change the focus.