The head of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) has repeated his backing of Eddie Jones and his belief that England are making progress, but admitted the upbeat statement of support on Sunday should have shown more understanding of fans’ frustration.
Echoing Jones’s positive comments after the defeat by France, their third of the Six Nations, the RFU issued a statement saying it was “encouraged by the team’s solid progress”. That came a year after England’s fifth-placed finish in the tournament, also after three defeats.
Speaking to the media for the first time in a year at Twickenham on Thursday, RFU CEO Bill Sweeney said that although this year’s performance was “hugely disappointing”, he had faith that Jones was the right man to turn things around.
“When we made that statement, we were being honest,” Sweeney said after several high-profile former players criticised the RFU for misleading fans.
“Solid progress – I can understand how that might confuse after two wins last year and two wins this year. But progress is not just about matches won. It’s also about hitting certain objectives along the way.
“The positive developments were in terms of new players coming in, leadership on the field and the spirit within the camp. We feel we’re heading in the right direction.”
Jones has come under heavy fire in the media but Sweeney, who will oversee a routine review of the Six Nations alongside a largely confidential group of “experts”, said getting rid of the Australian was not on the agenda.
“Since 2019 Eddie’s been very clear and up front about things that would need to happen” he said. “Those have not always been transparent, but if you think about players that have come in…a lot of them he’s identified for some time.
Sweeney said Jones had felt the team spirit needed to improve and club relationships broken down to forge one England identity.
“We’ve seen that come on leaps and bounds. Another big one is leadership on the field of play. The other one is decision-making – maturity and composure in critical moments. We think we’re not there yet,” Sweeney said.
“We speak on a very frequent basis and he updates us in terms where he thinks we’re falling short. He’s got the absolute belief and commitment of the players. Given all of that, we believe he’s the right guy to take us through.”
Conor O’Shea, RFU director of performance rugby, echoed the thoughts of many observers that, individually, most England players performed well, but struggled to launch dangerous attacks.
In the games against Scotland, Ireland, Wales and France England managed three tries, and despite encouraging moments from new boys Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward and Harry Randall, the backline rarely threatened.
“Those players did make a difference, there were so many good individual performances,” O’Shea said.
“I think if you work hard enough, those margins that are so tight at top level… generally the great players will get you over that line.
“Players will learn about the vagaries of top-level sport because, beat South Africa, beat Australia they get slapped on the back and England have turned. Play like they did against Ireland, and the crowd is with them, it was amazing, and the following week, everything’s rubbish.
“But it’s not, it’s sport. We’re not trying to make excuses, it’s not good enough and we know that. We need to win but we know what’s coming through and with this group we believe we will.”