It took an Australian to tell it like it is. “The Six Nations is a dour affair and is built on the foundation of not allowing the opposition to score points,” said Eddie Jones, in an interview last year. “On the flipside, the Rugby Championship [New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina] is all about scoring more points than the opposition.
“Compare and contrast Italy and Argentina. Italy have been part of the Six Nations for 16 years and their rugby has basically regressed. Argentina have featured in the Championship for four years and their game – in particular their ability and execution on attack – has grown exponentially.”
Two days after that interview, Jones was appointed head coach of England, the first foreigner to take that role.
The Australian is forthright, sharp-tongued and, he says, sure to be unpopular with the team. He started by culling nine World Cup players, who have nearly 300 caps between them, and drafting in seven uncapped newcomers to his initial Six Nations squad. Three of them are included in Jones’s 23-man squad for the game in Scotland on 6 February, the opening weekend of the 2016 Six Nations Championship.
Those changes are not surprising, given that during the World Cup, in which he led Japan to a famous victory over South Africa, Jones said England were struggling because of “confused selection and strategy” and a lack of identity. Their use of Sam Burgess, recruited from rugby league, was “silly”.
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“No matter what happens on the rugby field, the press conferences will be entertaining.” So said Lawrence Dallaglio, the former England captain, after Jones announced the squad for his first tournament as coach of England. It is not a view anybody would have expressed about the first foreigners to coach England’s football and cricket teams, Sven-Goran Eriksson of Sweden, and Duncan Fletcher of Zimbabwe.
“The sport needs character and personality,” says Sir Clive Woodward, friend and former rival of Jones – they were the coaches of England and Australia in the 2003 World Cup final. “This could be a very exciting period for England.”
One of the country’s leading rugby correspondents (speaking anonymously for fear of an early confrontation) says, “He will definitely say something that will get him into trouble, and not just once. We’re really looking forward to working with him. It’s not going to be boring.”
Dallaglio, who expects Jones to have “a very fruitful time in England”, is right to highlight Jones’s public persona as a positive. While it should be the results that do all the talking, that is rarely how it works. The public want more.
“Duncan Fletcher never understood why our media weren’t flag-waving supporters,” says Vic Marks, the former England bowler, who is a familiar voice to followers of Test Match Special. “He thought they had a negative, cynical attitude and he simply opted out of dealing with them. There’s an obvious contrast there with Eddie Jones.”
Eriksson was abused in print before, during and after his five-year stint as manager, during which England rose from 17th to fifth in the world rankings but failed in big tournaments. He was wary of the press and when he left in 2006, the headline in The Sun was, “Goodbye, tosser”.
If somebody called Jones a “tosser” you could expect a reaction. The Australian rugby writer Greg Growden, who has had his run-ins with Jones, describes him as “the ultimate scrapper who loves confrontation and the intellectual challenges that coaching provides. He is a workaholic, single-minded, disciplined, dictatorial, and often tricky to handle.”
Jones would work up to 14 hours a day when he coached in club rugby and put in even longer shifts when he became an international coach for Australia (2001–05) and Japan (2012–15). He also worked as an assistant coach for South Africa when they won the 2007 World Cup, and has been involved in English rugby before. Jones played a few games for Leicester at the end of his career in the early 90s, and was director of rugby at Saracens before he moved to Japan.
“There is no international rugby coach who better understands the value and impact of the media... the sense of theatre of a press conference,” says Growden, who is a rugby correspondent for ESPN. “He is fascinated by the media, and knows how to use it.”
Jones, 56, has a multicultural and multi-dimensional background compared to Eriksson and Fletcher. His wife and mother are Japanese, he has worked in four continents and never stayed anywhere longer than four years, the length of his current contract.
He was born in Tasmania, taught himself Japanese, started his working life as a teacher, helped to set up the first international school in Vietnam, has suffered a stroke, was recently appointed a director of the Goldman Sachs investment bank, loves cricket, and is a big fan of Pep Guardiola, the Bayern Munich coach who may be heading to one of England’s top clubs.
Jones says he is both “a devil and an angel”. His career low was resigning from Queensland Reds in 2007, when they finished bottom of the league. His high points were leading Australia to the World Cup final in 2003, helping South Africa to win it in 2007, a few months after leaving the Reds, and overseeing Japan’s remarkable win against the Springboks last year, the biggest surprise in international rugby history.
The magnitude of that win prompted Goldman Sachs to give him a directorship so they could “benefit from his unrivalled leadership and his ability to bring together a multi-cultural team”. Masanori Mochida, president of Goldman Sachs in Japan, said Jones had “achieved the impossible”.
Japan won fans worldwide for their exciting style of play in the World Cup, which Jones called “ruck and run rugby, the new rock ’n’ roll”.
At the outset of his England role he is interested in results, not style. “There are two things you need to win a game of rugby: talent and cohesion – and there is plenty of talent in England. I have a long-term plan, but for now all I have to do is select the right players, get them to understand the style of play and beat Scotland.”
Peter FitzSimons, who played for the Wallabies in the 1980s and 90s before becoming one of Australia’s most popular media commentators, says, “Eddie is broadly well liked and respected but is also what we call in the Australian argot ‘a cranky b*****d’ and maybe the most intense of the breed that ever lived.
“The stories of just how obsessive he is – to work his assistant coaches into the ground, to ensure they work the team into the ground, to get every last detail right – are numerous.
“He was a great player for Randwick in the 1980s, and extremely unlucky not to have been a Wallaby hooker. What he lacked in size, he made up for in activity. He was like a feral sheepdog with just a touch of rabies. Every time you looked up, there was Eddie, barking at his own side to herd them into exactly the right position, or snarling at you. Then, once the game was over, his eyeballs would stop rolling, and he would be a good bloke once more.
“He is much the same as a coach: insanely focused, and entirely unforgiving of those who can’t match his level of obsessiveness. The attrition rate on assistant coaches who can’t keep up tends to be high, just as players who don’t measure up to his standards are quickly measured up for the international rugby graveyard. But, at base, still a good bloke. Just a bit odd. I suspect he will go well for England.”
Jones says he’d mellowed. “When I was younger, I was terrible at tolerating people who didn’t have the same enthusiasm and drive to win. I’m a bit better now. As you get older you learn which fights to fight. I couldn’t do this job in my 40s. You get wiser as you get older.”
He also had a health scare, spending more than a month in intensive care in October 2013, after suffering a stroke. “I had to change the way I was operating, I was pushing too hard,” he said afterwards. “It made me realise what I wanted to do – coach and look after my family. I don’t drink now, I eat healthy food, regulate my sleep pattern and don’t have saunas.”
Jones is still learning. “I talk to a lot of people,” he says. “I try to meet people who are smarter than me.” One of those, he says, was Pep Guardiola. He contacted Bayern Munich in 2014 and visited in November of that year.
“It was absolutely fascinating. I watched Pep taking a training session and it made me embarrassed by my coaching. He was so bloody brilliant. He has some of the best players in the world and he just worked them so hard. It was minus three degrees and they came off the field dripping with sweat, they had worked that hard.”
With England having dropped to eighth, their lowest ever point in the world rankings, Jones’s squad can expect more of the same. “Perhaps it needs an Australian to remind us what English rugby is all about,” says Woodward.