As the tide appears to be turning against Eddie Jones, it is worth reflecting on his remaining allies.
Publicly, some players have been robust in their defence. They are compromised, obviously. As Jeremy Guscott posted on Thursday morning, no England regular is likely to whip out the flamethrower and replicate Cristiano Ronaldo’s visit to Piers Morgan with match fees of around £25,000 at stake.
An extraordinary week has already seen David Pembroke, a long-time media advisor to Jones, mount a remarkable online crusade. Neil Craig, another Australian, would also seem to be a key figure in the inner circle.
He arrived at Twickenham in October 2017, which means that the 66-year-old Craig is on his fourth England defence coach, having worked with myriad consultants in various areas while team results have fluctuated.
Craig is understood to earn in the region of 400,000 Australian Dollars, or close to £225,000. One might expect to be paid such a salary as a Premiership head coach. While his official job title is ‘head of performance’ at the Rugby Football Union, Jones’ autobiography – the same book that Pembroke helped to finish, according to its acknowledgments – informs us that Craig’s formal moniker is “pretty meaningless”.
“Critical friend” and “trusted right-hand man who offers a fresh pair of eyes” are two other descriptions given to the former Australian Rules player and coach. In an interview for The Universal Man Podcast in July 2021, Craig himself explained that he is, among other things, “a bulls--- monitor”.
The job has evolved, with high-ball technique and leadership skills – both among players and coaches – also part of his remit. Craig’s personal relationship with Jones, whom he has known for two decades, is vital.
“A lot of it is to be this support to Eddie in his role as head coach of England, which is a highly-stressful job,” said Craig, 17 months ago. “It’s very public – England Rugby is huge over in Europe. Rugby in general is a big sport. He’s an Australian coaching the England team, which is another layer that goes with it.
“Probably the role and the way it’s developed is to be a really good listener. We meet every morning, without fail, for 20 minutes and most times there are agenda items. Occasionally, there are not. It can be me just sitting and listening if he wants to download about anything, from what’s keeping him awake at night, the performance of the team, an individual player, selection, a staff member, anything to do with coaching. And sometimes away from coaching.
“[The job is to be] a listener, to be a good questioner, to sometimes just ask him questions to make sure he’s thinking correctly, a sounding board, a bulls--- monitor: ‘Eddie, no. Come on. You know that’s not right. That’s bulls---. Come on.’ I’m an observer. It’s a variety of roles.”
A bond stronger than most
Sources have baulked at Craig’s pay packet, using it as an example of how the RFU have appeased Jones. However, another underlined the importance of such a safety net because prioritising well-being in high-performance sport is not as prevalent as it could be. They argued that every top coach should have an intuitive mentor. Either way, an easy joke is that Craig, often seen around Jones’ post-match huddles with journalists, has not filtered all of the bulls--- recently.
Unsurprisingly, a World Cup campaign inspired Craig’s appointment. Jones remembered the dynamic of his collaboration with Jake White during South Africa’s run to the title in 2007. In that respect, and in light of England’s coaching merry-go-round, the bond between Craig and Jones would seem stronger than most in the England camp.
There is a pattern of leaning on old friends from Australia, of course, which started with Glen Ella coming in as a skills specialist for the 2016 series against the Wallabies. Craig’s comments above reinforce the notion that Jones still feels like an outsider and appreciates familiar voices.
Another revealing episode from Jones’ autobiography concerns the death of Jeff Sayle, his former mentor at Randwick, during the 2019 World Cup. Jones was rocked. Craig helped to stabilise him.
“Neil, as he always does, just let me talk,” wrote the England head coach. “He listened and let me get it all out. In high-performance coaching, the way you make people feel defines how well you do your job. Neil was patient and sincere and I appreciated his empathy.”
It would be fascinating to be privy to an early-morning catch-up this week. If he does reach 2023 in his current post, Jones will be further indebted to Craig.