A month before the Premiership cranks into life, three out of the autumn internationals, 13 months before the World Cup, I intercept Eddie Jones at HQ fulfilling sponsorship engagements. Twickenham is lightly dressed in Umbro regalia, Jones appears relaxed, his face set with that familiar half-smile, wary, full of mischief, ready for anything. Before him sits a casual observer of rugby affairs, an enthusiast for its chaotic rhythms, but no expert. I declare my inexperience, which seems to lower his guard a tad. A tad.
We were 40 minutes into what I felt was a fascinating exchange before Jones went full Eddie. “You are going down the wrong line here, mate. Talking some shit now.” I made the mistake of engaging a mercenary in fantasy rugby. I asked him which of the All Blacks or other southern hemisphere blades he would take for England. “None, mate. I’m not a fan, mate, so don’t ask me to answer questions like a fan, right?” For a moment I wondered if that might be it. An Eddie walked out. “You want me to be a fan, get me after 2023. I don’t see the game that way. I’m here to coach England. I’m happy with what I’ve got.”
Suitably supine, like a dog setting his ears low before the alpha, I figuratively begged forgiveness. He growled a bit, looked askance and gave me 10 more minutes. Time to throw in a few World Cup questions. We spoke in the early part of our conversation about the coaching method, English character, his love for Owen Farrell, cultural differences that separate the hemispheres. We slipped codes to association football; talked Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and the dysfunction of Manchester United. He had good news for them, but first the meat of the matter. Did the series win in Australia represent genuine progress and what does he expect of England at the World Cup in France. Can we get to that level of performance that topped the All Blacks in the 2019 and prevail in the final?
“We can be even better,” he said. On what basis? “The quality of players, quality of coaching and I think there will be a good desire about the England team to want to be better than England has ever seen.” A powerful statement. “Do you want to hold yourself to that?” I asked. “100 per cent,” he said, the cheeky grin returning.
England went to Australia on the back of a poor Six Nations, suffering punishing defeats to Scotland, Ireland and France. The style of play as well as the results led many to question the wisdom of continuing with Jones. The mood darkened still further when England slipped to a fourth successive defeat in Perth. The critics piled in. It is at moments like this that Jones draws down on all his experience, stripping the hour of emotion and reacting decisively.
Having given scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet a scoring debut in the second half in Perth as replacement for Danny Care, he started him in the second Test and was rewarded with an energetic, inventive display that contributed to an impressive win, which in turn led to a series victory in Sydney, reinforcing his belief in the English resurrection during his final months in office.
Since his arrival seven years ago Jones has been wrestling with what he believes are cultural and structural factors that define the English player. “They are good, tough players. They work hard but they only know what they know. If you have only been in a system where you get to 15, you have a bit of rugby ability and then go to Harrow. Then for two years you do nothing but play rugby, everything’s done for you. That’s the reality. You have this closeted life. When things go to crap on the field who’s going to lead because these blokes have never had experience of it? I see that as a big thing. When we are on the front foot we are the best in the world. When we are not on the front foot our ability to find a way to win, our resolve, is not as it should be.”
And then there is traditional English reserve, which was noticeable immediately following his brief immersion with the Stormers in Cape Town. “There is this desire to be polite and so winning is seen as a bit uncouth. We have to play the game properly, old chap.” I point out that the old chaps conquered their instincts and the Australian team he coached to reach the game’s summit in 2003. “Yeah but that was just situational success (a one-off) wasn’t it? There has been nothing to follow that. I felt that culture was working against us when I arrived, 100 per cent. It’s never one thing, it’s the whole structure. Players are taught to be compliant. The best teams are run by the players and the coach facilitates that. That’s the key. Look at United. At some stage they had Scholes, Keane, Neville, all those guys. The players ran the team and Ferguson had iron clad discipline that kept them all in line.”
For Scholes, Keane and Neville, read Farrell, one of only three players in the Lions squad he argued would have earned selection in the All Blacks side they were facing alongside Billy Vunipola and George North. “A freak, mate,” he said of North. Of Farrell he says this: “He has this unbelievable competitive spirit. Anything he plays he wants to win. Bob Dwyer [Australia’s 1991 World Cup winning coach] always said select players with the attributes you can’t coach. He is by far our best 12. He’s a warrior. You need a player like that.”
I probe the stuff Farrell doesn’t offer, the absence of real instinctive flair and elan we associate with southern hemisphere backs. I broaden the point to ask why England teams do not seem to intuit space or offload like Australia or the All Blacks, why they don’t dance with the same obvious verve. He accepts the argument and points to a skills deficit born of the setting. “It’s the way the players are educated. I’ve been here seven years now and I’ve never seen kids in a park playing touch football [rugby]. Never. Zero. In the southern hemisphere they are all doing that, developing their skills. Here you see them playing football, but never touch football. That’s the problem. It’s all formal coaching, in a formal setting, in public schools. You are going to have to blow the whole thing up at some stage, change it because you are not getting enough skilful players through.”
His job, he claims, is not to develop young talent but to polish what he is given. We switch codes to get his perspective on coaches he admires and to understand the transformational success of Brendon McCullum and Sarina Wiegman with England’s male Test cricketers and female footballers. “To do what they did you have to have the right ingredients. Sometimes it’s just changing the way they play, sometimes it’s changing the way they think, sometimes changing the way they train. Sometimes it’s sustainable, sometimes not. When I first came to England we had a reasonable team but they weren’t fit enough. So we got them fit. We simplified the game, played a very traditional England game but that only lasts a period of time and we had to change it to go to the World Cup. Now we are having to change it again.”
He also makes the point that the coach does not work in a vacuum. “Pep and Klopp are at clubs that really want to win. I reckon both are strong on vision, how they want to play. Pep wants to beat you through possession. That’s my rudimentary understanding. Klopp wants to beat you by putting pressure on you. You don’t have to be Einstein to work out how they play. That’s clear. They recruit the right players then they train them hard. But the club has to know where it’s at and has to find the right coach for that particular time. There is never one kind of right leadership. The conditions at the club, where the owners want to go, how the administration works, what is the head coach’s responsibility? You have to have the best players but if you don’t have the right environment it’s like putting your best looking flowers in the desert. They are not going to grow.”
Which brings us to United, a club entering its tenth season without a title since the departure of Ferguson. “If City and Liverpool hadn’t got their acts together United might still be at the top. City and Liverpool are run by serious people who want to win. Winning is hard, mate. Everyone wants to win but have you got the will to prepare, to do that extra work? It starts at the top. Maybe the emphasis at United was on selling shirts. Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] trains the team the whole pre-season to play a certain way with Sancho at the front. He’s their big buy and then they sign Ronaldo. So what do you do then? That is the sign of a failed institution, one that is not aligned. They can change that around in 24 months. And they will. Eventually incompetence changes everything. It makes you want to get better.”
Jones is a known admirer of Guardiola, “he’s so giving, mate”. I concur and augment the love-in by advancing the idea that Guardiola taught us how winning sport can be a matter of beauty as well as ruthless efficiency. Ever the realist he shot me down one last time. “I’m not sure about that, mate. It’s easier when you can buy the best players. Put Pep down at Burnley and see how that goes.”
Eddie Jones is an ambassador for Umbro. For more information visit umbro.co.uk/rugby or follow @Umbro_Rugby on Instagram