Eddie Jones kicks off with a war of words
The England head coach won no friends with comments about Johnny Sexton’s parents
England head coach Eddie Jones: “The destination for us is 2019, where I expect us to be at our best. That’s not to say we can’t win tournaments and Test matches along the way.” Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Eddie Jones and the war of words was well and truly won. The Irish Times’s profile on England’s first foreign head coach had been thoroughly researched, pared back and polished. All that was needed before filing an overwhelmingly positive slant on this wily Australian, of Randwick stock and interesting Japanese heritage, was a chirpy line from him at Thursday’s team announcement in Pennyhill Park.
Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, already seen as a compulsive kicking side despite statistics showing England put boot to ball more often, was overshadowed by the 56-year-old’s humorous raids into the media market making us all believe otherwise.
Ireland, Jones told us, played Aussie rules not rugby.
“If you want to play like the old Stoke City, then that is the safest way to play, isn’t it?” said Jones in a preemptive strike before the Six Nations began. “Just stick the ball in the air, chase hard and get everyone to clap. If you’re not a strong side you can guarantee a close game.
“There’s a fascinating book on soccer – Soccernomics – it’s all about the data on soccer. It shows that teams which have done really well by playing high balls are teams that minimise the amount of time the ball is in play. It makes sense: minimise the time the ball is in play and it minimises the time the other team have to score. If you are kicking the ball relentlessly down the other end, then it minimises the number of opportunities the other team will have to score.
The line stuck because we all saw Johnny Sexton bomb balls into the Parisian sky with regularity for Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw to chase and leap. Then chase and leap some more.
The phony war was won until Jones committed harakiri with an incendiary remark, feigning concern for Sexton’s parents due to the “whiplash” sustained by their son against France.
This was a step across the line of decency usually adhered to by professional sporting rivals. It turns out Jones, sifting through his life, really can’t help himself.
“He calls a spade a shovel,” said his peerless former coach Bob Dwyer.
Jones’s shovel this past fortnight, used to incite Joe Schmidt, which he briefly seemed to achieve, ceased to be effective Thursday lunchtime.
Just as the Ireland coach was reading out his team in Carton House Hotel and Sexton was expressing his dissatisfaction about ill-informed reportage on his wellbeing or supposed lack thereof, Jones was saying: “Sexton is an interesting one. They’ve talked about him having whiplash injury which is not a great thing to talk about. I’m sure his mother and father would be worried about that. Hopefully, the lad’s all right on Saturday to play.”
An irresponsible comment to be made by anyone, never mind a highly experienced rugby coach. In doing so Jones made a fatal error in the pre-match media jousting he had so seamlessly won on jabs landed; he presumed the English fourth estate, already tiring of his refusal to answer even the occasional serious question seriously, would stir the pot for him.
Instead they ran him through the mill for bringing a man’s parents into the conversation. Sports journalists look like a mad rabble, but they are not all fools.
“He’s a vicious sense of humour,” said childhood pal Mark Ella.
A stumpy little hooker himself, he filled the heavy green Randwick jersey during that bloody encounter with the 1988 touring All Blacks when a 20-year-old Michael Cheika remained unbowed despite a Buck Shelford pummelling.
“There was Eddie, this little half-Japanese hooker, giving it to Sean Fitzpatrick, ” former Australian flanker Simon Poidevin told Oliver Brown of the Daily Telegraph during last January’s deep dive on England’s replacement for Stuart Lancaster.
“Sledge, sledge, sledge throughout the whole game. He could give an absolutely executing one-liner.”
A vicious sense of humour that can boil over in defeat. “The players don’t want to win enough, and they don’t want to change enough so I’m going to have to change the players,” Jones said at the start of his second stint in Japan four years ago.
Toshiaki Hirose, his captain, smiled politely. Jones snapped: “It’s not funny. That’s the problem with Japanese rugby. You’re not serious about winning.”
So a ‘beware this little devil and red rose’ article was written, neatly packaged with Jones as the Joe Pesci character in Goodfellas (“Funny how?”), until he flung out that sentence about an opponent’s parents. The reporters who cover England had patiently entertained his sarcastic demeanour up to that moment. But this was a news line, and a road Jones clearly did not really want to travel down. He made it worse with smarmy putdowns of one question. Never a wise move and Jones should know that by now.
As the print section of the Q&A began, the gloves were calmly removed by everyone in the room. No space for humour now: the concussion conversation had begun in Pennyhill.
It went on and on as Jones stubbornly kept trying to swim through the chum.
“Remember David Knox who played for the Brumbies and New South Wales? He couldn’t tackle to save his life and teams used to send runners at him all the time,” he said.
“I remember Tuigamala. New South Wales played Auckland when Graham Henry was coaching Auckland. I remember sitting on the bench and Tuigamala kept on running at David Knox and absolutely terrorised him. That’s been happening since Adam and Eve was around. To say ‘Is that a legitimate tactic?’ is absolutely ridiculous. You think they’re not going to send Henshaw at George Ford? Give me a break.”
Jones either wanted to create this messy situation – in that he couldn’t care less how he is perceived – or it was one quip too many.
If it’s an attempt at gamesmanship then the man lacks integrity.
“We target players all the time,” he said off the top on Thursday and stood over his comments, thereby ruining any chance of this profile thoroughly recounting a brilliant coaching career that has included two World Cup final appearances (2003 and 2007), a Super Rugby title with the ACT Brumbies and Japan’s felling of the mighty Springboks.
Instead, the smarmy Sexton observation overshadowed his funny jibe about Ireland’s “Aussie rules” approach to kicking ball rather than playing “the way I think you should play rugby”.
Warren Gatland made the same point last month about Ireland but that important debate got swallowed by the ensuing backlash.
“Eddie will either be an amazing success or a huge blow-up. There will be nothing in between,” said Poidevin, his friend and former teammate.
Work in progressAustraliaSouth Africa
“But we are a work in progress,” Jones said when properly holding court earlier this week. “The end destination for us is 2019, that’s where I expect us to be at our absolute best. That’s not to say we can’t be good enough to win tournaments and Test matches along the way. That’s our aim.”
The English fourth estate wanted to know when judgment can start being made on Jones the coach.
“You guys are going to do it on Saturday at 6.30pm,” he said.
“Akuma [devil],” a Japanese player once called Jones. “Tenshi [angel] the next day.”