It’s all down to the way they referee the Premiership. Obviously.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a high-profile team in the throes of poor form must be in want of an explanation. Some can be amusingly tenuous, offered by apparently serious commentators on the sport in question, stroking their chin, suing for our respect and/or the establishment of their credibility.
In rugby circles, the question of referees and their varying interpretations is particularly popular, being almost impossible to prove and esoteric enough to dazzle the passingly interested. ‘That bloke said referee and interpretation in the same sentence. Must know what he’s talking about’ is the reaction aimed for by those who peddle this line of bullshit.
England’s fall from grace of late, after an ascension to it of unprecedented consistency of result, has created the latest flurry in hysterical explanations, most of them centred around the Premiership, the same competition that supplied five quarter-finalists to Europe the season before last, while England were winning a grand slam, and boasts the club, Saracens, that recently won consecutive European titles.
One bad season, though, and the “way” Premiership teams play (and are refereed) is all the rage among the chin-strokers, whose beards distract them so from what’s happening on the pitch. Who are all these English clubs whose style is killing the national team – not Saracens, not Wasps, not Newcastle, Sale, Gloucester, even Worcester or London Irish. And the one team whose victory-by-possession approach has attracted criticism after recent successes, Exeter, are essentially a poor man’s Ireland (give or take the odd set-piece move of the latter). No one’s complaining about Ireland just now.
That said, the England soap opera, or the Eddie Jones Show, is baffling but utterly, utterly compelling, this South Africa tour a case in point. Encouragingly, the opening quarters of those first two Tests is the best we’ve seen England attack under Jones. More ominous is the way they simply stopped.
One plausible theory for England’s travails is that Jones has a shelf-life of two years, after which his wit and force of personality start to grate on the invariably prosaic culture of a rugby team. Where his every move once looked inspired (Luther Burrell’s substitution), so they start to look weird and insane (Nick Isiekwe’s) when the mandate of the winner to do what the hell he likes is taken away. We are at a deliciously delicate point in the EJ Show, little more than a year away from its denouement. It’s agony if you support England, but to those who love the arc of a storyline it cannot be beaten.
Another plausible theory is the effect of the Lions tour on England’s club-owned players. That should be mitigated next season, but the inconvenient presence of excellent opposition is one more factor, which will not go away.
Eddie Jones, an evolving attack, the dastardly oppo and heightened mania on the highest stage – there’s so much to relish.
If anyone so much as mentions Premiership referees…