“It’s where I feel most relaxed, mate,” a laid-back Eddie Jones says of Japan, where he is based, as he explains his good mood despite the disappointment of losing his job as England head coach last month.
“I’m not under constant scrutiny and I don’t get noticed a lot so I can go about my business fairly unencumbered.”
I have interviewed Jones more than 40 times, mainly while working with him on his autobiography, and there is a marked contrast between today and those prickly occasions when he was under great stress.
It means Jones can now reflect on the three key mistakes he believes he made during his seven-year England tenure. The most damaging of these was not always choosing the right assistants while, off the field, he concedes it was an error to say last year that the public school system was at the root of England’s leadership concerns.
Jones insists that there are “no recriminations against anyone at the RFU. They made a decision. So be it”. And he seems notably cheerful while he offers teasing hints of where he will coach next, admits that he would still love to win the World Cup, discusses how going to church brings him peace and stresses that turning 63 this month will not limit his coaching ambitions.
He seems different to the tetchy and weary coach he often resembled in the past few years.
“I never felt that when I was doing the job,” he says. “But then you look back and think: ‘Yeah, there were times when you were doing nothing else but thinking about the job.’ That’s one of the reasons we do it, because we love it. But I feel ready to go again.”
That enthusiasm stems from the fact that, as Jones says, “I’ve got a couple of good options. I’m getting to the stage of talking contracts so I’ll make a decision in the next couple of weeks”.
Is he excited by both options?
“One hundred per cent mate,” he says with a huge grin as I fish for clues. “They have very different aspects and the decision will be made on where I feel I could make the most contribution over the next four or five years.”
Is one offer from a country with a winning record and the other from a developing rugby nation?
“One’s one and one’s the other, mate,” he says, enjoying the game.
Jones coached his native Australia from 2001 to 2005, helping them reach the World Cup final in 2003, and I wonder if he might consider working with Dave Rennie, the current Wallabies head coach.
“I’m not an assistant coach, mate. I’m not interested in that sort of job,” he replies.
While he loves being a head coach, 10 weeks before the 2007 World Cup, South Africa did recruit him as a consultant. Many of the Springbok players have said Jones’s arrival was crucial to their becoming world champions that year.
The idea that Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s mischievous director of rugby, might now offer Jones a role is startling. Erasmus and Jones plotting England’s downfall at the World Cup would be one of the sporting stories of the year.
“I’d become a TikTok specialist, mate,” a laughing Jones says.
In terms of developing countries, Georgia would be an intriguing fit. But Jones has always told me that coaching the USA holds a strong attraction.
“One hundred per cent. That would be one of the best projects but I get the impression World Rugby is starting to look at whether the investment in that country has made them ready. Given that the USA didn’t make the World Cup, it’s at a standstill.”
His World Cup record is hugely impressive, having also made Japan the story of the tournament in 2015, and so does he still dream of winning it?
“Yeah, I’d obviously like to lift the trophy. But I really enjoy the process of building a team and playing good rugby.”
Jones produced the best record of any England rugby coach in history – winning 59 out of 81 Tests with his 73% average surpassing even Clive Woodward’s 71%. England won three Six Nations tournaments, one Grand Slam and reached the 2019 World Cup final. These are real achievements – unlike last year when his disjointed team won only five out of 12 Tests and gloom descended on Twickenham.
He suggests that a desire to oust him began as long ago as the 2020 Six Nations.
“Some people think I’m a fool – but I could hear the drums beating pretty loud.”
Last autumn, England won one out of four Tests. But it is possible he would still be in charge if Marcus Smith had nailed a missed conversion which would have helped turn a comeback 25-25 draw with New Zealand into an unforgettable victory. He smiles.
“As my wife says: ‘We don’t deal with ifs in our house.’”
Jones insists he was “coaching well” even as England’s results took a depressing dip.
“Yeah, particularly over the last 18 months. Parts of me say: ‘Goodness me! Some of the rugby we played in November was very good’. I thought we were fantastic against Japan and then New Zealand played good rugby and we hung in there, and the rugby we played at the end of the game [gaining parity after being 25-6 down with 10 minutes left] makes you sit on the edge of your seat.”
Yet, after the game, he said he had coached badly.
“I always take the view that when we lose, take responsibility. And when we win, give the credit to the players, particularly in England where the media are so strong. You want to protect the players as much as you can.”
In his final match “we got outpowered by South Africa. Rugby’s physicality has gone through the roof and so you have to kick well and your contest skills at [the] breakdown have to be fantastic. So the game is changing a lot and the team that evolves quickest from now to the World Cup will win it. I’ve got a picture in my head of how you do it.”
What could he have done differently with England?
“I don’t have any regrets but there were a couple of mistakes, a couple of decisions I probably rushed.”
Jones points out that, because rugby has become “a lot more complex” the role of his assistants is “just so important because they’re doing the bulk of the coaching”.
Could he have done more to generate the synergy that was missing between him and some of his assistant coaches?
“I think it’s always about selection of people, mate.”
There was a constant churn of staff under Jones but he focuses on his most successful appointment.
“Steve Borthwick was there [from 2016] until 2020. He then wanted his own career. One of my jobs was to get England to win again, which I did, and also to produce the next head coach. So I look back with satisfaction because Steve will do a bloody good job. He’s outstanding.”
What else could Jones have done better?
“In 2020 we won the two trophies on offer [the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup] but were widely criticised because of the style of play. The adjustment to a better style was needed and I probably didn’t get the evolution right. There were a number of other things going on [including Covid and Saracens being relegated for breaking the salary cap] but you can’t have excuses.”
When we worked together, Jones spoke often of his struggle to develop leadership skills among players. He blamed the privileged lives of players educated at public school and he voiced those views openly in an interview last year.
“That was one of my mistakes, mate,” he says, remembering the hostile reaction from the RFU and the Twickenham crowd. “Once you get that group offside you’re in trouble. But diversity is so important and sport’s not sheltered from that.”
Jones always loves players from the supposed “wrong side of the tracks”, partly because he has been an outsider since he was a small but mouthy kid of mixed Japanese and white Australian descent.
But he is heartened by the messages of thanks sent to him by “at least 50 players” he selected for England.
“That was one of the nice things because there’s no need for them to say anything now because you’re not going to progress their careers. I’ve got the greatest admiration for English players. They work hard, they give you all they’ve got and I really enjoyed coaching them.
“That’s always the saddest part. You’re not their friend but you’ve got this great respect and desire to do things better together. Losing that is probably the hardest thing about the job.”
He has wondered if he was too soft on the players.
“There’s this perception I’m a raving lunatic. But I haven’t been like that for a long time. I don’t know whether I was too soft in England. Did I get enough out of the players? Probably no, in the end, and that’s why you get the sack, mate.”
Jones sounds proud when he says of his time with England: “Eighteen straight wins which is still the world record for a tier one country. We were the only team to win a series in Australia, not once, but twice. We made the World Cup final and that’s how I see England playing, with power, pace, a great deal of physicality and also some subtlety. That was enjoyable but we never quite got the right balance back.”
During his enforced break, Jones loved watching the football World Cup.
“It was fantastic and I so liked what Morocco and Croatia did. Two small populations [who reached the semi-finals] playing to their own tune. And the beauty of that final was incredible.”
The men’s Rugby World Cup begins in September and Jones believes “six teams can win it. Australia have beaten South Africa, drawn with New Zealand and lost [away] to France by one point. So they’re one of the six with England. New Zealand and South Africa are ranked third and fourth. Ireland and France are the popular teams [ranked 1 and 2].
“They might be slightly ahead but in nine months they mightn’t be and that’s all that counts. At most other World Cups New Zealand have been way ahead with a group of teams fighting to play them. Generally, it’s South Africa, who have won the World Cup three times. That’s changed now.”
France are the hosts and the current Six Nations champions.
“They’ve got a 2023 project,” Jones concedes. “If you look at the history of French sport they’ve been able to do that for World Cups where the whole country gets behind the campaign. At the moment it’s working but what about later this year? No one knows.”
Has Jones spoken to Borthwick?
“Very briefly when I finished. I wished him the best and if he needs anything I’m there to help him. I’m back in the UK for a period this month and if he needs any help I’ll be all hands on deck.”
Jones will have left England long before the Ashes begin this summer. He is an ardent cricket fan but he shakes his head when asked if he followed the latest achievement of England’s Test team under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes when winning 3-0 in Pakistan.
“They still haven’t played Australia, mate. Let’s see how they do in the Ashes. England are doing well but the most difficult thing is sustaining it.”
After he suffered a stroke in Japan in 2013, Jones found comfort in going to church. He has returned to the same church.
“I’m not particularly Christian but it’s funny how you’re drawn to it. I felt it was important to spend our Christmas and New Year there because you feel the peace of the place. That allows you some very quiet thinking.”
Is he conscious of time slipping away?
“Well, I had dinner with some Goldman Sachs people the other night and there were chairmen of some massive companies in Japan. They were all in their 70s. They’re so sharp talking about everything from politics to Covid in China to the economy in Japan to sport.
“There is no reason why, if you look after yourself, you should not do well in any endeavour at that age. So there’s no reason why coaching for me shouldn’t be at least another World Cup cycle.”
There is time for one last reflection on England and his decision to continue after the 2019 World Cup.
“I knew it was going to be challenging because we had to rebuild the team and as England’s first foreign coach you’re going to get more criticism. But I’m really glad I gave it a go. Hopefully, I’ve left England in a better place than when I took over. I’d like to think that, whatever team I take over, next time I’ll do the same thing.”