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The closing act of mischievous Eddie Jones will not be dull or safe

Like Muhammad Ali, England coach knows how to engage the public and sell the game

"Tell Sir Clive I want to be like him. That's my dream," chortled Eddie Jones after Japan's shock win against South Africa in the rugby hotbed of Brighton. It was an amusing thought. Jones was in his element in that autumn of 2015.

Here was rugby’s ultimate misfit, taking a peripheral rugby nation to improbable heights through wit and boldness, pretending to aspire to become one of the gilded son’s of England’s sporting tradition.

Be careful what you wish for. Since he accepted the England job in 2016, Jones has managed to strike a fine line between being the ultimate establishment man – the coach of the England rugby union team – without ever relinquishing his sense of himself as the feisty outsider, up for rubbing the world's nose in it, on for challenging polite society, again and always.

For all of the spiky exchanges in which Jones has engaged the media, few modern coaches invest as much honesty or energy in his obligations.

It's been a brilliant high-wire walk by Jones. And as Ireland settle in for one of those terse rugby afternoons at Twickenham, the immensity of his contribution to rugby has never been more apparent.

Scan the headlines and the airwaves for sporting escapism from the real world this week and Jones’s name is the one that dominates in advance of the big match, sucking up oxygen, deflecting the bright lights in pre-game remarks which will reliably contain at least one nugget of provocative gold.

‘Scummy Irish’

His words have landed him in hot water on several times. It's only a few years since Jones was forced to apologise "unreservedly" for calling Wales "a s**t little place" and referencing his sole loss as England manager to "the scummy Irish". This is not the kind of language that lands you a knighthood. Jones was giving a corporate talk: he presumed his comments were not for public consumption. But there's a good chance he wasn't that bothered either way.

In the video clip that circulated, he began by asking “So Wales . . . who knows Wales? Is there any Welsh people here?” There’s a glint in his eye and he’s smiling: he’s only half serious in what he says. Jones is a student of the game: he’s well aware of Wales’s place in rugby lore.

The moment is as close as rugby union is ever going to get to Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes; laughing in advance because he knows he's about to ruffle feathers and vanities.

Does Jones genuinely think this about Wales and Ireland? Possibly. But who cares? It’s how he communicates: in irreverent take-me-as-you-find-me street talk. This is someone who dismissed the idea that he is capable of playing psychological mind games by claiming he wasn’t clever enough.

“I’m Australian, mate. I’m a convict!”

Australia did not take offence. For all of the spiky exchanges in which he has engaged the media, few modern coaches invest as much honesty or energy in his obligations.

He's one of the very few coaches who are up for honest, introspective interviews where all topics are on-limit. Just last November he sat down with the former Leinster and Australia coach Michael Cheika. An amusing conversation took place amid a blizzard of "mates"; a trick was missed by not placing a six pack of Victoria Bitter between them.

Rugby has a small industry of coverage humming now for 12 months of the year and while it is informative and often fascinating, the prevailing tone is one of necessary earnestness

At one point Cheika wondered about the constant baiting and mischief-making in his media duties. “Mate, is that how you like to play it?” Cheika asked. And Jones said what he always says when he is asked about this: that it’s a bit of fun. But then he said this: “If you don’t say anything then you don’t promote the game.”

And that may be at the heart of it. Jones is a bit like the Michael Palin of rugby. He has been everywhere. If rugby is the last bastion of colonialism, then Jones's perspective is unique and invaluable. Here's a half-Japanese, half-Australian boy growing up in 1970s Australia, sharing a class with the Aboriginal kids and what he refers to as "the Anglo-Saxon boys".

He encountered a bit of casual racism which never bothered him: he talks about that formative decade as a glory. The moment he understood he wasn't going to make it as a player with the Australia national team is etched indelibly on his mind. "You're just too small, mate," Bob Dwyer told him with brutal candour. The economic toughness of the exchange stayed with him. It left him with no room for doubt. And it became a weapon he would use as he made his way as a coach.

World Cups with South Africa, with Australia, with Japan, with England: Jones has operated at rugby's heartland and its new frontiers as the sport moved from amateurism and professionalism while trying to establish itself as a world sport. Jones heard a statistic after the 2019 World Cup that rugby had about nine million dedicated fans. He wants to multiply that to a hundred million.

Entertainer’s instinct

Popping up on a talk show hosted by Alan Brazil and Ally McCoist, the two Scottish football stars of yesteryear, Jones took them by surprise by telling them that the best sports event he has ever attended was the Champions League semi-final at Anfield between Liverpool and Barcelona.

“The girls serving the dinner were all crying,” he remembered. So he wasn’t standing in the Kop. But Jones is a magpie when it comes to sport. He has a keen intuition of where rugby is placed in the greater scheme of things.

Coaching the England rugby team places a person in the court of a rich, if narrow, tradition. It is easy to feel like the world revolves around you when you are ensconced in the Home Counties values. It is easy to believe that rugby union, with its tradition and its money and its way of doing things, is the epicentre of the world. Jones knows differently.

The moments of anarchy and politeness may have a self-serving function when it comes to winning rugby games. But beneath that lies the entertainer's instinct to engage the public and, like Muhammad Ali, to sell the fight.

Rugby has a small industry of coverage humming now for 12 months of the year and while it is informative and often fascinating, the prevailing tone is one of necessary earnestness. There’s something within Jones that has always resisted that call to earnestness, who can’t quite resist shooting his mouth off, whatever the cost. He’s an obsessive, a born workaholic and is never going to abandon the insolence and salty humour that set him apart.

So his style, his presence, is always going to get under people's skin including, of late, Clive Woodward, who has complained in a recent column that nobody in the RFU is willing to hold Jones to account for the early February collapse against Scotland: that he has the establishment itself running scared. All will forgive him if he can win the World Cup with England next year. By then, he will be the longest-serving England coach in RFU history. But whatever happens, the closing act of Jones will not be dull and will not be safe.

“I can be like any other coach and say yes and not say anything,” he warned in 2016 during his first season with England. “I’ll just do that from now on.”

But that was just a bit of fun.

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