LONDON — The Rugby Football Union will not stand in Eddie Jones’ way if he is chosen as the man to lead the British & Irish Lions to South Africa in 2021.
Jones previously stated he would leave his role as England head coach after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but has had a change of heart and has signed on for a further two years taking him through to August 2021. Part of this deal sees the RFU appoint Jones’ successor during the 2019-20 campaign, giving the chosen individual time to work alongside Jones to ease the transition from one coach to the next.
But if the Lions come calling for their 2021 trip to face the Springboks, RFU CEO Steve Brown said he will not block the tourists from talking to Jones if he emerges as their chosen coach.
“Bear in mind that we’re a quarter-shareholder in the Lions and we’ll have some say in that too,” Brown said. “Our view in that would be that if we’re planning for success, and we’ve come out of very successful World Cup, and Eddie is the right coach for the Lions, the arrangement isn’t going to preclude that.”
This is a change in policy from Brown’s predecessor Ian Ritchie who categorically ruled Jones out of contention for the Lions’ 2017 tour of New Zealand as he wanted the England head coach to focus solely on their goal of winning the 2019 World Cup.
The final season of Jones’ contract with the RFU, barring another extension or activation of the performance-related break clause, would overlap with the build up to the Lions tour. The schedule is yet to be confirmed but the tour typically falls in June-July, with the season leading up usually involving a sabbatical for the Lions’ head coach if they are employed in another, full-time role.
Warren Gatland, the man who led the Lions to their series win in Australia and draw against the All Blacks, took sabbaticals prior to both of his spells in charge of the tourists but RFU CEO Brown, who sits on the Lions’ board, would have some say in this if Jones is their chosen man.
“It’s quite a way away and there are a lot of things to happen before then and it’s not entirely our say either,” Brown said. “This [Jones’ new contract] is fundamentally about England but no, it doesn’t preclude a Lions situation if it were to occur.”
Jones himself refused to be drawn on any potential involvement with the Lions. “[I’ve] always been committed to England since I started,” Jones said. “That’s my role. I am not arrogant or presumptuous enough to think I would be offered the Lions role.”
If England are successful at the 2019 World Cup then Jones would be one of the frontrunners to lead the Lions to South Africa. Other contenders could potentially include Scotland’s Gregor Townsend, Ireland’s Joe Schmidt or Gatland, the man who led the Lions in 2013 and 2017. Gatland previously categorically ruled himself out of contention for 2021 but ESPN understands his stance has softened and would be in the mix.