Eddie Jones: What drives England’s notoriously difficult head coach?
Jones must embrace change in a game he had figured out with mathematical precision
Eddie Jones: “The doctor said, ‘If you recover fully you can coach until you’re 70.’ I might keep him to that”. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
“Conflict in any organisation is important, because from conflict you get creativity” – Eddie Jones
Only the special ones earn lifelong enemies. There’s a funny – or nasty, depending on the perspective – story about who Eddie Jones, the England head coach, used to be and why he will never really change.
“When it falls apart with Eddie Jones, it falls apart,” said Alan Jones. “And the results always bear witness to that.” The 77-year-old Sydney radio host – having previously been a speechwriter for Australia’s prime minister Malcolm Fraser – coached the Wallabies from 1984 to 1987, at the height of his sporting influence.
Brian Smith (the same scrumhalf who went on to play outhalf for Ireland nine times) was Alan Jones’s latest rising star when Eddie badly rubbed his namesake up the wrong way. As usual, the Randwick hooker’s acerbic tongue was targeting a potentially fragile goal kicker. The “torrent of insults and graphic innuendo” focused on Smith’s link to Alan Jones. All the while Alan Jones was standing behind the posts listening to Eddie’s best impression of a short leg fielder “grinding away at the batsman”. (In his heart of hearts he remains the cricket captain of his youth.)
“You would always hear Eddie,” wrote Greg Growden, rugby correspondent at ESPN. “That guttural, rasping, fingernails-across-the-chalkboard voice, winding up opponents.” “Alan Jones would never forget what was said by the little man in green,” writes Mike Colman in his recent Eddie Jones biography, Rugby Maverick. “Whether on the air, speaking to his supporters in the rugby hierarchy or in the private letters he would regularly send to influential friends, he wouldn’t miss an opportunity to voice his lack of regard for Eddie’s coaching ability and personal qualities.”
Described by Alan Jones as “the master of filth”, Eddie’s default reaction was to “find it funny that he still carries a grudge. I admit I was a good sledger. Probably a better sledger than I was a player.”
Whether such mastery of verbal abuse trumps his coaching ability remains a topical theory as the 58-year-old refuses to go quietly with medical advice promising another decade on the soapbox.
Due diligence belatedly occurred in the Rugby Football Union (RFU) corridors of power, but only after former chief executive Ian Ritchie flew to Cape Town in November 2015 – where Eddie had cashed in Japanese yen for South African rand – to offer the notoriously difficult, if effective, coach the greatest challenge of his rugby odyssey: bring William Webb Ellis back from your ancestral home in 2019.
In 2015, Stuart Lancaster had just been dragged across the embers of England’s World Cup campaign that ended, miserably, in Manchester against Uruguay. Jones had also failed to guide Japan – where his parents, an Australian soldier and Japanese translator in the aftermath of second World War, first met – to the knockout stages, but no rugby man’s stock was higher after the giant Springboks were chopped down by the Brave Blossoms in Brighton. It remains the sport’s greatest upset.
While Eddie Jones’s achievements will stand the test of time, he is haunted by every coach’s impending doom: failure
“How do you think it will go?” an RFU staffer asked a former Wallaby staffer. “He’ll go very well at the start. The real question is how he’ll go for the last two years.”
Sure enough, England grand-slammed 2016 before Michael Cheika’s ears rang at every turn during the whitewash series down under. Swinging low into 2017, a second slam and record 19th straight victory were derailed by “the scummy Irish”. Last season brought defeats to Scotland, France and Ireland – a remorseless kill under Twickenham sleet and snow – before a regenerating Springbok side won the summer series 2-1.
Now comes his greatest test: reviving fortunes in year four after year three went to form. Like Jose Mourinho, Jones must embrace changes in a game he had previously figured out with mathematical precision. Sport eventually surpasses anyone mad enough to stick around for 25 years, and while Eddie Jones’s achievements will stand the test of time, he is haunted by every coach’s impending doom: failure.
November results suggest a dying kick. England is far from the best team he has ever controlled – that would be the 2007 Springboks, followed by the 2001 ACT Brumbies – but what follows in 2019 will either confirm his greatness or nestle him back among the other streetwise Randwick disciples who followed former Australian manager Bob Dwyer on to the world stage.
Eddie Jones knows this. Eddie Jones sees his own flaws before anyone else. Back in 2013, he recognised the need to radically evolve by flying to Munich for an audience with Pep Guardiola, former manager of the Bayern Munich football team.
“He was very giving of his time. We sat down and spoke about the principles of finding space... I remember [Bayern players] coming off [the training pitch] and they had sweat pouring off them. I have watched many football teams train, and they were down here and he was up there. It definitely changed the way that I coach. I came out of that session embarrassed about how I had been coaching. When I was a young coach I used to coach pretty hard and I probably got criticised a bit for it. I work the players a lot harder now, but for shorter periods.”
Despite the upgrade, his training methods remain a primary criticism. Injuries in the England camp have doubled on his watch, with men badly wounded by judo and other activities. Sam Jones was forced to retire last year following a horrendous knee and ankle injury suffered while wrestling Maro Itoje. When Premiership coaches and owners went ballistic Eddie responded: “I don’t think anyone at a club has the right to tell a coach how to train a test team.”
And yet these clubs control his fate. The English system’s perseverance with flogging players, despite overwhelming evidence demanding a softer path, denied Jones access to the power game Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi could, finally, deliver this evening.
Sam Underhill, the young Bath openside who brilliantly slowed the Leinster ball at the Rec in December, is the latest piece of the jigsaw snatched away by unavoidable surgery. The Premiership is Eddie’s ready-made excuse.
“You look at New Zealand, you look at Ireland, both similar systems, both operating at the top of the tree of world rugby. For other countries who don’t have that control, like England, it just makes success more difficult to be sustainable because you don’t have control of the players.”
The RFU has granted all other wishes. No stone is left unturned, from Jonny Wilkinson monitoring kickers to a recently revamped coaching ticket, including former All Black supremo John Mitchell heading up defence and fellow Aussie Scott Wisemantel running the attack.
Ah yes, Eddie and his assistants reveal as chequered a past as his relationship with suits in every organisation or union that has paid his hefty salary (currently £750,000 per annum). Colman’s book reveals a shrewd tactical mind, nurtured by the Australian Ella brothers in his formative years, mixed with a torrid way of treating some who have worked under him.
“I couldn’t believe the way he talked to people in front of other people,” said legendary Wallaby fullback and Jones’s assistant Roger Gould. “I’ve managed enough people to know that there are some things you just can’t do to people. You can’t take away their dignity.”
Eddie Jones’s outbursts are known as “the infamous sprays”. “Eventually I realised it was his way of feeling better about himself,” said Andrew Blades, another former Wallaby and Jones’s forwards coach. “I saw him destroy a few souls and then move on, but what if the person he has been ripping apart can’t move on?”
An insane work ethic weeds out most but Steve Borthwick, forwards coach, appears as a kindred spirit, the pair combining since a disastrous stint at Saracens into the Japanese adventure and now England.
Throughout his tumultuous career Eddie Jones has remained a player’s man above all else, pouncing on any opportunity to create a siege mentality; with blind loyalty to Dylan Hartley being as good an example as any, even after the currently injured co-captain ran on to Franklin’s Gardens to forearm-smash Sean O’Brien in December 2016.
“He’d do anything for the players,” said another former assistant. “He was very supportive but he harangued rather than discussed. He’s a difficult manager. There was enormous amount of stress... It was his way or the highway.”
People do change, especially when exhaustion threatens to frighten the life out of them. Not long after his Guardiola awakening Eddie Jones suffered a stroke.
The doctor said, ‘If you recover fully you can coach until you’re 70.’ I might keep him to that
“I think it had been a road-to-Damascus moment for him,” said his old sparring partner in the Australian Rugby Union, John O’Neill. “I’ve never seen a coach work harder, but he had to learn that working 16 hours a day is not what it is about. I think he had a good look at life after the stroke. I detected a more at peace Eddie Jones.”
Since those six weeks of rehab for the frozen left side of his body, the pace has hardly slowed, but perhaps he works smarter. “I had coached officially for 17 years, and it was the first time I had actually had a break. The doctor said, ‘If you recover fully you can coach until you’re 70.’ I might keep him to that.”
England extended his contract until 2021, so that leaves another decade rubbing people up the wrong way. Of course it’s all a game.
Like playing the Joker to Johnny Sexton’s Batman, Eddie Jones’s public face is nothing like the man who never speaks rugby at home with his wife, whose early calling as a teacher is uncannily similar to Joe Schmidt, who was described by Steve Hansen as a “a good rugby man” after the All Blacks, one-point win at Twickenham in November.
It will probably unravel in year four, with Alan Jones and the rest proved right in the end, but a return to the land of the rising sun offers a fitting nadir/zenith in act three of a fascinating rugby man’s story.