Mark Cueto: Sacking Eddie Jones felt like a knee-jerk decision and shows the RFU are 'out of touch'

Cueto discusses the departure of Eddie Jones and also explains why Steve Borthwick is the ideal candidate to become England's new head coach

Mark Cueto had more questions than answers on Tuesday morning when he read the news that Eddie Jones had been sacked as England's head coach.

"I think it is a typical England Rugby knee-jerk decision if I am being honest," says Cueto. "Obviously results and performances and everything in the autumn hasn't been up to scratch and there has been a lot of criticism around selection.

"I say it to you all the time, I don't want to be that ex-player slagging everything off, but there are two performance indicators and one is your general win-lose ratio. Eddie has got the best win-lose ratio percentage out of any England coach even including Clive Woodward and not only that, if you narrow that win-lose percentage down to purely just in World Cups, he's got a win percentage of over 90 per cent. Where is the thinking around sacking him?"

Cueto is right. Jones had a 73 per cent success rate in his 81 matches in charge, better than any of his predecessors.

"If I am Mr [Bill] Sweeney, sitting in my ivory tower at the RFU, I have weighed up we're not playing well, but what seems to be forgotten is we have just beaten Australia in Australia," Cueto continues. "Eddie had the best winning percentage across all competitions.

"Everybody knows how Eddie works. His four years since the last World Cup, where we got to a World Cup final, his four-year plan is all about the next World Cup but it feels like they have not considered that have they?

"What team sacks a head coach nine months out from the World Cup? It just feels like it is a bit of a mess."

When assessing the slightly bigger picture, 2022 has been a hard slog for everybody connected with England. Just five wins in the calendar year - their worst return for 14 years - means the final chapter of the Jones era was a 27-13 loss to South Africa last month.

"I had an event with Sale on Tuesday night and it included some England players we have got," says Cueto who is still involved with the commercial side of the club. "I got the feeling, and it was from no inside information, that Jones had lost the changing room a bit due to playing players out of position and the lack of cohesion we saw in the autumn.

"Speaking to the lads, that didn't seem to be the case at all but what struck me was they didn't seem to have been spoken to about the decision around Eddie. That begs the question even more of how the RFU have come to this decision because it feels like they have just reacted to what has happened in the last four weeks."

For Cueto, he feels the move to relieve Jones of his duties is another example of the RFU being "out of touch" with the game. News stories at the top of the sport will always fill the spotlight, but the former England winger thinks this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to where the priorities lie for the governing body.

Cueto, for instance, references the RFU "essentially" passing full funding rights over to Gallagher Premiership clubs who support their Allianz Premier 15s sides despite top-flight men's teams continuing to lose money each year whilst any focus on the state of the game lower down the rugby pyramid is obscured by how precious international rugby is to the RFU.

"There is no real understanding or empathy for the domestic game, I don't think," Cueto tells TRU. "I remember playing games for England. I got two free tickets to give to my Mum and Dad. After the game, I would go into the players' lounge but I have also got a brother and sister and a missus, a couple of kids and some mates so suddenly I need seven or eight tickets so I end up having to pay for those.

"I don't mind because I am earning some good money, but I go into the same room and there are people there who have never been near an England pitch in their lives who have got massive tables and it is all free. If I am that guy with my feet under the table and it is all cushty and I am getting all these benefits, I am not going to complain am I? 

"That is why the game isn't progressing because people can become comfortable and it is lucky there is a big enough market for international rugby because I see it as a corporate crowd rather than a rugby crowd. You could stick my four-year-old son Josh as the CEO of England Rugby and it would still make money.

"The problem is that money also needs to filter down. My lads are playing at various levels and grassroots, but the game is so unsafe at grassroots. I used to hear other parents saying; 'I am not having little Jimmy play rugby because it is too dangerous' and I didn't think they knew what they were talking about! Now I am in it and I see it, you can see work needs to be done to improve aspects of safety because little Jimmy is getting injured and parents aren't bringing their kids back and that is why I worry for the game in all seriousness. The game needs a shake up."

The recent demise of Worcester Warriors and Wasps has led to the suggestion that the RFU need to wake up and implement some changes at the top of English rugby. Cueto feels one element which could be looked at is trying to attract people to the sport in terms of viewership. In turn, he believes this could then have a wider impact on bringing in a new audience as well as providing some possible commercial benefits.

"Premiership games need to get on terrestrial TV more because we are still making it so difficult for people to watch," Cueto says. "From my time in the commercial at Sale, knowing that they have reports around the number of people watching games, I know that any given game that is on BT Sport has a 200,000-250,000 live audience, for example. Comparatively, if that game is on ITV or Channel 4 or 5 or whoever gets the odd game here and there, it is three times that. The audience is there but we are just starving them or preventing them from what they want to watch.

"The knock on effect of having it on free-to-air is all your sponsorship and commercial values have the potential to go up. That is where your front-of-shirt sponsor might get more exposure and it could be worth three times more if the game was more accessible. That is across the board. More people take an interest in the game because they can see it and then more people will be invested in watching rugby and that could aid commercial revenues as well.

"All you hear anyone talking about is growing the game but there always seems to be negative story after negative story in our sport. That's all people read.

"The RFU do support the game massively and I get that and I appreciate that, but all that is happening at the minute, we are just plastering over little cracks. Cracks just keep reappearing as they do. It is like a house that is falling down. If you keep trying to plaster it up and fix it, you just bite the bullet and knock it down and start again. That is almost where we are at I think. It sounds dramatic but it is true."

For all the different issues people will point the RFU towards, at the top of their in-tray will be acquiring a replacement for Jones.

It seems inevitable that Leicester Tigers' Steve Borthwick will get the top job, with the Daily Mail reporting the East Midlands club have asked for compensation of £500,000 for the mid-season release of their head coach.

How quickly the finances can be negotiated between the current Premiership champions and the RFU is yet to be seen with the Six Nations rapidly coming into view and the World Cup now nine months away.

Cueto - who played alongside Borthwick during his England career - feels the Leicester boss is the ideal choice to occupy the Twickenham hot seat but the pressure is on for the RFU to obtain his signature.

"It is interesting and not to throw another spanner in the works but he worked under Eddie a lot during his early days as a coach," Cueto adds. "I played with Steve initially and then he was one of my England captains for a period and I know him well. He has obviously done an unbelievable job at Leicester.

"At the end of the day, he has coached a number of different teams and in environments at various levels whether that was with Japan or England with Eddie or in the Premiership so he has probably got more experience than some. He won the Premiership last year! You do a quick evaluation there and suddenly that initial bit of doubt is pushed away quite quickly.

"It will be really hard for whoever comes in to instil anything in the team quickly however with Borthers, maybe it wouldn't take as long because there are several Leicester Tigers players in that England team and he was in that same environment two years or so ago. Suddenly it makes even more sense.

"I'd do anything to get him in as early as I could. I've heard rumours he won't leave Leicester until the end of the season just because of his loyalties and his principles as a bloke but if he is the guy that the RFU are nailing on, then they have got to get him in pre-Six Nations."

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