Bill Sweeney: ‘It just didn’t seem to be clicking’

Bill Sweeney [left] poses with England's new head coach Steve Borthwick [middle] and RFU chair Tom Ilube [right]
©RFU Collection via Getty Images

Following the announcement of Steve Borthwick as England’s new head coach, Rugby Football Union CEO says that England ‘didn’t seem to be clicking’ under Eddie Jones.

These past four weeks have certainly been a trial by fire for Bill Sweeney. He has faced questioning from MPs at a DCMS hearing, been called ‘slippery Bill’ by one of Eddie Jones’ media advisors and had to find a new head coach for the men’s national team.

Just 13 days after sacking Eddie Jones following a dismal 2022 year which saw England win just five of the 12 games they played, the CEO looking proud as punch walking through the door of the media briefing room a couple of paces ahead of Steve Borthwick.

Not only securing the services of Steve Borthwick from Leicester Tigers, the RFU were able to bring along Kevin Sinfield as defence coach. Not at Twickenham in order to attend Doddie Weir’s memorial service in Scotland, it is certainly a coup for the union.

Leicester were, perhaps, less enthusiastic about losing two of their leading men. Putting out a press release 20 minutes before England’s, Tigers announced that Richard Wigglesworth would be taking the reins, and that Borthwick and Sinfield had negotiated out of their contracts early.

But early trigger pulls aside, it was clear that England had got their man. From the very moment that Eddie Jones was said to have hopped into a taxi at Twickenham after learning of his dismissal, it seemed for all the will in the world that Borthwick was the man wanted to right the ship. And he was.

“Every time we have a tournament, we have a preview and a review,” Sweeney said. “We had the autumn’s where the results just weren’t what we expected to have. We had the normal review process.

“That panel met with the board the following day and the decision was taken to make a change. We had a coach succession plan in place. Steve was always our number one candidate and that was going to happen post-World Cup.

“We decided we needed to accelerate that. My first conversation with Leicester was back in August and they were very cooperative in that you are probably going to speed this up. I spoke to them soon afterwards.

“That discussion went on for quite some time, and we settled that, and Steve signed over the weekend.”

Finishing the Autumn Nations Series with a 13-27 loss to South Africa at Twickenham, the home fans booed the players off the field. Sheepish grins were there for all to see and afterwards Jones was spikey with the media, in what would be his final briefing.

A third-place finish in the Guinness Six Nations earlier that season and losses to Argentina and the Springboks to end the year were all added up to a first losing year since 2008. In all that time, there was a Test series win in Australia, a comprehensive win over Japan and a final 10 minutes against the All Blacks which were heart-stopping, but even then, it was underwhelming.

In his media briefing, Sweeney outlined a number of examples of things that had concerned him throughout the year. He included the loss at Murrayfield, Marcus Smith’s substitution in that game, finishing third in the Six Nations before the Autumn Nations Series made him question the direction the side was heading in.”

“It just didn’t seem to be clicking,” Sweeney said. “England had a very clear strategy about how he wanted to play. He was talking about different styles of play, combining classic English set-piece with a more expansive role, but it just wasn’t happening.

“The question then was, do we just sit tight and hope that it happens or do we feel there’s something more that needs to be done or addressed to get that back?”

The review panel duly met, and 10 days from the loss to South Africa, Eddie Jones’ seven years with England was up. Leaving Twickenham with a 73 per cent winning percentage, there is little doubt of Jones’ world-class coaching credentials. 

In his first interview since his axing, Jones told Midi Olympique that me would “maybe” change selection criteria and how the demotion of Saracens had an impact on things, with players playing in the Championship and below their ordinary standard.

His own future, according to the interview, will be decided next month and at Twickenham the future is now. Sweeney declared in his opening statement on Monday that “a new era” had begun, and in the hours that followed there was little reason to think anything to the contrary.

Borthwick dazzled on his first outing as the face of English rugby, although the question about Jones coming back to haunt England in some shape or form in France next year does still hang around, especially with it having been confirmed that Rugby Australia’s chairman, Hamish McLennan, has held talks with Jones.

“I’d be amazed if he wasn’t there,” Sweeney said. “Who knows? Hamish McLennan said they were going to ‘weaponize’ Eddie. Does he go there as a consultant, does he go to the US, to Japan? I don’t know.”

The coming weeks are going to be busy for England. Among other things, Borthwick has to appoint his coaching team and in just a few weeks’ time the 2023 Six Nations will be upon us. Nine games stand between England and the World Cup, it’s a lot of work and moving forward there won’t be a trend to look towards the World Cup as Jones did as a real barometer for success.

Borthwick was almost infamous among the media for his ‘one game at a time approach’. But as much as it was frustrating then, now it has more meaning with ever as the new head coach gets his England team together and playing the brand of rugby which suits them best.

“I don’t think you can have an obsession just only on a World Cup once every four years and write everything else off for that goal,” Sweeney said. “The Six Nations is the best competition in the world. And we’ve all got Welsh, Scottish and Irish mates somewhere.

“And having those bragging rights is really important and also for the fans coming into Twickenham. So yes, we want to win every Six Nations tournament and we should be wanting to win every Six Nations game. So having that balance there.”

Did Jones look too far ahead?

“I think most conversations around Eddie tend to revolve around World Cups,” Sweeney said. “And whether that’s because of his previous experiences in there, whether it’s because he’s never won one – a lot of the conversations tend to revolve around World Cups.

“I can tell in conversations we were having with him going into the Six Nations, he didn’t want to perform badly in those situations. The one Grand Slam meant a huge amount to him.

“I think maybe something got lost in the narrative there. But I think you’ve got to be competitive in the Six Nations, not just every four years at a World Cup.”