With sixteen wins from his first seventeen matches as England’s Head Coach, it was unsurprising that the sight of Eddie Jones elicited such a warm reception at The Oxford Union on Friday. For his part, the Australian, who has led England to back-to-back Six Nations titles, seemed eminently comfortable from the off. Indeed, Jones soon settled into his role as a self-fashioned gunslinger. He compared media days to Old Western movies, so it is perhaps fitting that his opinions are always shot decisively from the hip. Rugby League? “The most simple game in the world.” Current Welsh international George North? “A bit of a freak.” Former Wallaby international George Smith? “An absolute freak.” Freak, it should be pointed out, is one of the terms of highest praise in Jones’ lexicon.
Being alive to these cultural ticks was a major driver in implementing a successful strategy in both countries
Jones’ rugby philosophy, too, is refreshingly prosaic. “You gotta hit, you gotta hurt people, you gotta go forward” he surmised. Equally, the first item in his coaching agenda upon starting a new job is to “work out the fights you can win, and the fights you can’t” and decipher “what problems you can and can’t fix.” This methodological approach has served Jones at every echelon of the game; from club rugby with the Brumbies and Saracens, roles in Japan’s nascent rugby culture, and finally through to Australia and England.
Clearly, the manifold successes of Jones’ career take a bit more explaining. One explanation is Jones’ clear and perceptive understanding of rugby culture across the world. A fruitful comparison comes from his stints with Japan and Australia. Whilst Australians are naturally more abrasive but terrible time-keepers, the inverse was true in Japan, he contended. Being alive to these cultural ticks was a major driver in implementing a successful strategy in both countries. Even in England, an initial struggle of Jones’ was trying to engage frankly with players from “the most polite country in the world.”
Yet he has evidently succeeded. To take a country which floundered at a home World Cup in 2015 and steer them to a world-record equalling unbeaten run was no small achievement. But Jones is under no illusions. The real world-beaters remain New Zealand, a team which “has struck a beautiful balance of athleticism and skill.” And it is this insistence of skill over size, of brain over brawn, which Jones is keen to re-iterate. “The easy part of rugby is the physical part,” he contends, but the skills are much harder to sharpen. Consequently, the Northern Hemisphere’s over-reliance on physicality is an “indictment on the game” writ large. A further launch into a well-reasoned, if counter-intuitive, argument in favour of the necessity of “fatigue” in the modern game concludes that without it, “the collisions are going to get too intense, and injuries are going to increase.”
Jones is not overly puritanical though. He’d sooner have a big guy than a small one, but a marriage of size and skill is the optimum. This is perhaps why he is insistent that Bully Vunipola, the one-man wrecking ball blessed with remarkable dexterity is “going to be one of the greats of the game.” So too, he reasons, is Owen Farrell. The link between the Saracens star and Jones has been an integral part of England’s success, and you get the impression that he is the first man on the team-sheet. This is an opinion likely to be shared by the Lions’ Head Coach Warren Gatland, as the four nations prepare for battle against New Zealand this summer. But does Jones believe that his English team can topple the All Blacks, when their time comes? “No brainer,” he shoots, with only a modicum of sarcasm. As always, Jones is pragmatic. Beating New Zealand requires “an extraordinary performance, and for an extraordinary performance you need extraordinary prep.” Luckily for fans of the Red Rose, Jones is certain “that’s what we’re doing now.”
Jones is not overly puritanical though. He’d sooner have a big guy than a small one, but a marriage of size and skill is the optimum
As this remarkably forthright coach begins to run out of bullets, a more earnest side emerges. The key to success in rugby is “giving the team something to believe in.” An idea which confirms their ambition. “The players I coach I love, I want to give them all I’ve got. I want them to win,” he states, with his eventual hope being that “my job as a coach is to make myself redundant.” Redundant in the sense that the players can go out and achieve their potential without having to resort to asking their coach. Like the best Western heroes, Jones is willing to lay himself in the crossfire for a cause bigger than himself.