Eddie Jones: right man at right time rescued England and saved his career | Andy Bull

Andy Bull
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Eddie Jones has turned England’s fortunes around since he took the head coach job following the poor showing in the 2015 World Cup.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters</span>
Eddie Jones has turned England’s fortunes around since he took the head coach job following the poor showing in the 2015 World Cup. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Eddie Jones passed the audition for the England job at 6.40pm on Saturday 19 September 2015, eight weeks before it became available, nine weeks before he was appointed. That was the day Japan beat South Africa 34-32 at the Brighton Community Stadium, in the group stages of the 2015 World Cup.

At that particular moment there were two minutes to play and Japan were three points down. They won a penalty, and had to pick whether to kick at goal, for three points and a draw, or try and score five or more to win the match. Jones knew just what to do. “When we had that chance to level the game,” he said, “I tried to get the message down to take the kick at goal.” Only, he was too slow. By the time his instructions reached the pitch, the ball was already in touch.

Jones once complained the Japanese players relied too heavily on “rote learning” when they should have been thinking about “what the situation requires”. When he was at Suntory Sungoliath, Jones changed the players’ training to what he calls a game-based approach. He taught them to think for themselves. And they won three trophies in two years. He then spent three years teaching the very same things to the Japan national team. So when his captain, Michael Leitch, took the decision to kick to touch against South Africa, Jones said: “Fair enough, here we go.” But if Jones had his way, Japan would not have won, and if they had not won, well, “without that victory,” says Kensuke Iwabuchi, the general manager of Japan, “Eddie would not have been appointed to the head coach of England.”

A wise man once said it’s better to be lucky than good. And a wiser one replied why choose? At the end of 2015 Jones was supposed to go to Cape Town to coach the Stormers. He had been in Japan for six years, on the periphery of the sport, coaching the national team against Kazakhstan and the UAE, the Philippines and South Korea. When Martin Johnson resigned from the England job in 2011, Jones was not included in the lists of men contending to replace him. All the talk was about Graham Henry, Jim Mallinder and Jake White. But when Johnson’s successor, Stuart Lancaster, quit in 2015, Japan’s victory was fresh in everyone’s mind, and Jones’s stock as high as it had ever been.

The final few months of Lancaster’s regime were characterised by confusion. The closer he got to the World Cup, the less sure he seemed to be about who should be in the team and how they should play. Lancaster had spent four years trying to correct the mistakes England made in 2011. At the end of it, they were worse than ever. Jones had the one thing everyone wanted, ready answers. He had been watching England, he said last year, “thinking what I would do to turn that team around”. He used his column in the Daily Mail to explain that when they got to the World Cup, the coaches had panicked and confused the players by changing the strategy they had been working on for the last 12 months. What the team needed, he said, was clarity. And clarity comes with experience, one thing Lancaster lacked, but which Jones had in abundance.

<span class="element-image__caption">Japan’s Karne Hesketh scores the winning try against South Africa in the 2015 World Cup. Without it, he would probably not be England’s coach.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Steve Bardens/World Rugby via Getty Images</span>
Japan’s Karne Hesketh scores the winning try against South Africa in the 2015 World Cup. Without it, he would probably not be England’s coach. Photograph: Steve Bardens/World Rugby via Getty Images

After four years of fretting about the team’s identity, Jones had clear ideas about that too. Jones is Australian, but has a Japanese wife, a Japanese mother and he has worked in Japan, South Africa, Australia and England. He believes that “sport tends to mimic the society it operates in”.

Which is why, he once said, “prior coaching experience in that country” is one of two absolute requirements for a head coach (the other is to have won tournaments). Iwabuchi says the main reason why Jones succeeded in Japan was that “he tried hard to understand Japanese cultural background and apply it to his coaching”. England, Jones said, would have a traditionally English identity. He has defined this at various times as conservative, with “a dominant set-piece, strong defence and that real bulldog spirit”.

If he thinks you are not working hard enough then you’d better be ready to have your arse kicked … but he has a heart

Ben Tune

Saturday’s match against Ireland will be the 18th game England have played under Jones. It is interesting to compare them to the last 18 games they played before he took over. In those matches, Lancaster picked 42 different men in his first XV and made a total of 82 changes to the team. Three players started in at least 15 of those games. Jones has picked 33 players in his first XV and made 59 changes to the team. Seven players have started in at least 15 of those games.

Jones not only undid some of his predecessor’s key decisions, by bringing back Dylan Hartley, making him captain, and moving Chris Robshaw to the blindside, he settled several key questions that Lancaster had never been able to answer, like who should start at fly-half, inside and outside centre.

If Jones had what England needed as a team, it is just as important England had what he needed as a coach. Ben Tune is one of the few players who has seen Jones at his best and at his worst. He played for Jones when he was coaching Australia and again during his single, sorry season in charge of the Queensland Reds in 2007 when they finished bottom of the Super Rugby table. They had so many injuries, Tune says, that Jones was working with “Brisbane club players” and he did not know how to get the best out of them.

Jones has said he is no good at nurturing young players. “But,” Tune says, “give him the right raw materials and resources and he is easily the best coach I’ve seen.” Raw material and resources are two things England did not lack.

Jones has spoken about the science and the art of coaching. The science includes all the innovative techniques he has been using in training.

As Tune says: “I’ve never met a more analytical person but it’s the way he applies this to game strategy that makes him particularly good. He can analyse an opposition gameplan and come up with a counter for it within the week he has to prepare for a particular game and he can do that week in week out.”

Then there’s the art. “Eddie adapts his approach to the player,” Tune says. “He expects the best and expects you to work as hard as he does. If he thinks you are not working hard enough then you’d better be ready to have your arse kicked.

“But he has a heart. He knows when a player is having a bad day or is distracted by something off the pitch. He’ll tell them to take a walk and clear their head.”

Jones was a rare example of the right man, with the right skills, arriving in the right job at the right time. He has given England clarity, stability, identity and a sense of purpose. The question now, beyond whether they win on Saturday, is if he can sustain England’s form through to 2019. He has never stayed in one job for long and some wonder whether it is because he is all about the short-term effect. Tune thinks Jones is someone who likes being presented with a problem, put a plan together to fix it, implement it, fix it and then move on.

“His passion is taking a team like England and turning it around to be the best in the world,” Tune says. “Make sure the ground work is laid for future success and then he’ll find a new challenge to get passionate about.”

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