Big Interview: Eddie Jones and England do things their own way
Eddie Jones may be half Australian and half Japanese, but there’s only one way he wants his England team to play – the English way.
Since replacing Stuart Lancaster in the wake of a disastrous home World Cup in 2015, Jones has become one of the most recognisable and outspoken figureheads of English sport.
But after reeling off victories in his first 17 games in charge, a losing streak of six matches this year brought England their worst Six Nations finish since 1983, an embarrassing loss to the Barbarians and back-to-back Test defeats against South Africa.
They finally ended that run by overcoming the Springboks 25-10 in Cape Town and face the same opponents at Twickenham today as they begin the long countdown to next autumn’s World Cup.
And the way Jones wants his side to play has been communicated loud and clear.
“New Zealand are the benchmark of international rugby and everyone attempts to copy them but you can’t copy some things,” he said. “You have to come up with your own way of playing and particularly for the English it’s important we keep being English. That’s not to say we can’t evolve.”
England will get a good look at the All Blacks in the second of their four-match series next week before clashes with his ‘home’ nations Japan and Australia.
But with those games and another Six Nations campaign to come, it is perhaps reasonable England’s World Cup opener with Tonga at the Sapporo Dome in Japan is yet to dominate his players’ thoughts.
“They won’t start thinking about that until after the Six Nations, because they know to get to the World Cup there is certain things they need to do,” said Jones. “They need to get into the squad.
“We don’t need to peak now, and we don’t need to peak before, we need to peak for the final on November 2 and that’s the secret to a Rugby World Cup campaign.”
Having taken over in the immediate aftermath of one World Cup, Jones finds himself two-and-a-half years into a four-year plan he hopes will culminate with England lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.
“I’ve always seen it as a four-year project. The first year was about establishing a foundation, which I think we did reasonably well and we probably had more success than we were entitled to have,” he said. “The second year was about making sure you have the foundation right and we did quite well.
“The third year is always the most difficult year as you have got to make changes, as some of the team you have had for the first two years may be at the end of their careers, so you have to regenerate the team and as we’ve found out there is some pain involved in that.
“Winning is not a straight line but I think we’re in a great position.”
Jones has tasted winning at the highest level, but only as a technical adviser to South Africa coach Jake White when they beat England in the 2007 final.
Four years earlier, he got as close as he has so far to lifting the big one as a head coach when in charge of Australia – only for Jonny Wilkinson’s right boot to deny him in the last minute of extra-time.
It was one of many lessons during his 24-year coaching career in rugby union, yet Jones admits some of his most valuable advice has come from football – and one particular visionary of the round ball game.
“When I was coaching in Japan, the biggest influence on me was Pep Guardiola,” he said. “He played that tiki-taka football and in Japan we had to find a way to beat bigger teams as we were small and it was only through moving the ball quickly that we could do that.
“I went and spent 90 minutes with him. He stayed until 7pm, he had a full day working and gave me his time at the end of the day talking about his approach to that and it was a really insightful discussion we had and helped me coach Japan.”
It clearly served Jones well as unfancied Japan bloodied the nose of South Africa with a glorious 34-32 victory in Brighton.
It was the story of the 2015 World Cup and convinced the RFU to pay £100,000 in compensation to The Stormers to get their man just eight days after he had taken over the South African franchise.
And since moving to England, his football lessons have only increased.
He said: “Since I’ve been in England I’ve been lucky enough to meet guys like Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, Roy Hodgson, Gareth Southgate and from each of them you pick up little bits.”
For a man short in stature – he is only 5ft 6in – Jones has certainly made a big impact on the sport. And his dedication to the tactical side allowed him to overcome his lack of size as a player, though he never went close to hitting the heights he has since reached as a coach.
“If you were an 80kg hooker you had to have something going for you because you haven’t got size, you haven’t got speed so I made my mark as being a good team player and then maybe being able to get in the heads of the opposition a little bit,” said Jones. “I had a brief period at Leicester and it was one of the best experiences I had and I think that probably led me to coach.
“This opportunity came to play for six months at Leicester. I was playing and the ball got kicked out, so I grabbed the ball and threw a quick lineout.
“I felt this hand on the back of my shoulder and it was the tight head prop who said: ‘Son, we don’t do that around here’.
“It really got me to understand how important it is for a team to have an identity because immediately when you started playing for Leicester no-one needed to speak about the culture, that was how it operated. You fit, you do your job and you are part of the team. It was a great experience I had, I loved it.”
And from there the path was set for Jones.
“I was the Randwick first-team hooker and the starting New South Wales hooker and I went back to the second team and one of the coaches said to me one day: ‘You talk a lot so you may as well coach the team as well’.
“I ended up coaching the second team as well for a season and we won the comp, so I thought I may as well have a go at this.”
All his lessons since have led to this moment – now it’s time to impart his knowledge on his players with the hope of winning the World Cup.
He will be considered a success or failure based on it, but Jones won’t be the sort to wonder what might have been – it is the Eddie Jones way to ‘have a go’ after all.
And if he can mix that successfully with the English way then 2019 will be a year to savour.