Eddie Jones likes to call a spade ‘a bloody shovel, mate’, but there was a sense even he had gone too far in questioning whether Johnny Sexton’s parents were concerned for their son’s well-being after his latest head knock in the line of duty.
The England head coach does not hold back under any circumstances — after his comments on Sexton he would later go on to say his own players were too comfortable and pampered to succeed — but this was one time he surely should have been more circumspect.
What made it even more incongruous was that his comments about Sexton were not prompted.
The question posed was “what made Ireland such dangerous opponents”, which Jones began to answer in straightforward fashion.
Then, out of nowhere, he went off on a tangent.
“Sexton is an interesting one,” he said. “They’ve talked about him having a whiplash injury, which is not a great thing to talk about. I’m sure his mother and father would be worried about that. Hopefully the lad is alright on Saturday to play.”
Eyebrows shot up around the room before the Irish Examiner and another reporter followed up on the issue, asking whether it was legitimate to target an opposition fly-half, as France undoubtedly did with Sexton a fortnight ago.
“We target players all the time — that’s part of rugby is it not?” said Jones, becoming visibly irate.
“Are we supposed to not run at one player? [Say] hang on, he’s got a red dot on his head, we don’t run at him. I don’t understand the question. Obviously it’s a different game over here.”
The questions were turned towards Dylan Hartley, sitting at Jones’ left, but the head coach wasn’t done.
“Sorry, can I just go back to that Sexton question, I think that’s a really stupid question,” he interjected.
“We’re going to be targeting players in the Ireland side. We want to win and you win a game of rugby by attacking their weak points, and to say that’s unfair is just ridiculous. You shouldn’t be asking those questions...it’s not a great question to ask at all. I think it’s stupid.”
More was to follow in front of the written press as Jones warmed to his theme.
“I’d just be worried about his welfare, if he’s had whiplash injuries,” he said, in reference to the problem which forced Sexton from the field at the Stade de France.
“That’s quite a distinct way to talk about the injury. You don’t like to see that with any player. If you’re saying a guy has got whiplash then he’s had a severe trauma. Maybe they used the wrong term, but if you’ve had severe trauma then you’ve got to worry about the welfare of the player.”
In other words, was Jones doing this simply to get under Sexton’s skin? Perhaps, and doing so would fit with the persona he has adopted since taking over at England.
Jones has said something astonishing in every single one of his media briefings to date, and his list of targets so far have included: His predecessor, his players; his players’ fitness; Italy; Ireland’s tactics; Danny Cipriani, and the media itself.
That is far from a definitive list, but there has been method behind the madness until now.
Jones likes to keep his players on edge, and have them questioning themselves.
In repeatedly telling them they have no world-class stars he is cutting them down to size.
Yesterday, for example, he would not let Maro Itoje — who will make his first start for England at lock tomorrow, with Joe Marler for Mako Vunipola the only other change from the team that beat Italy — speak to the press.
“When he has won us a significant Test match, you can talk to him all week, Monday to Friday, when he deserves some media exposure,” said Jones. “He doesn’t deserve media exposure. He has done nothing, nothing.”
It doesn’t just extend to his players. He talked yesterday about how when he was with Australia he had “a media guy who was very sharp”, before adding “now I’ve got one who is sometimes sharp”, in reference to his new head of communications.
It is simply his way of working, and is a million miles removed from Stuart Lancaster’s style. As Jones would point out, Lancaster’s methods did not do England much good in the World Cup.
But bringing up Sexton’s parents and their fears for their son felt crass.
It may not have been meant in that way, but just imagine if an England player lands a late hit on Sexton in the first five minutes at Twickenham tomorrow and he suffers another head injury.
What will we think of Jones then? Will he see it as a success? And what, more to the point, will Sexton’s parents think of him?
Then questions really will have to be asked.
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