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20 August 2016

What we can learn from Eddie Jones’s transformation of English rugby

Success is always a balancing act, and Jones is a master of both diligence and surprise.

By Ed Smith

Eddie Jones’s transformation of English rugby union is a case study in using surprise as a tool of leadership. When he took over in November 2015, Jones’s in tray looked like this: an underperforming team that had misplaced its identity, a captain to be sacked (then perhaps to be reintegrated in the ranks), a new captain to instal and, above all, the need for the team to find its true voice. Yet as a media pundit, Jones had been a harsh critic of the England team. Inside six months, Jones, who had previously coached Japan and Australia, won the Grand Slam and a historic 3-0 whitewash in Australia. How did he do it? By exploiting three kinds of surprise.

This month, I interviewed Jones when he visited the Test Match Special box during the fourth Test between England and Pakistan at the Oval in London. (He grew up playing both rugby and cricket.) Jones, who is half Japanese American and is Australian born and bred, is now 56 years old. He seems younger. Stuart Lancaster, his worthy predecessor, seemed duller the more you heard him speak. With his successor, it’s the opposite. Jones bristles with mischief, as if a day that lacks a serious challenge and a good joke were a day wasted.

Jones is impatient with tedium – another strength, as it warns him not to become boring. He constantly adapts training sessions so that players feel that things are different, while developing the same skills all along. He is a former school principal; a natural teacher will change metaphors to bring home a point. “It’s like giving them a meat pie one day with tomato sauce,” he explains, “and the next day you give it with barbecue sauce.”

Boredom is a huge hazard in the era of ultra-professionalism. Professionalism gave coaches new powers of control but resulted in new risks. Once, coaches struggled to whip slackers into shape. Now, with so many training sessions, team meetings and commercial impositions, the greater problem is players becoming dulled by compliance and predictability. This is a paradox of modern sport (and perhaps the modern workplace). In a casual and amateur context, sergeant-major-style coaches could be effective in elevating standards. When everyone is training so relentlessly, however, the need for coaches to have wit and ingenuity becomes more important than ever.

Jones became sentimental only once, when he talked to me about his boyhood hero, Ian Chappell, who captained the Australian cricket team in the 1970s. “I loved him,” he said. Chappell was an alpha male competitor who cultivated an irreverent, anti-establishment aura. With his long hair and unbuttoned shirt, he wired the spirit of rebellion into 1970s Australian cricket culture. That registered with Jones.

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Different times require different methods. Yet I suspect that all of the best coaches, whatever their surface style, are suspicious of conventional wisdom. By the time everyone is doing something, it no longer holds
a competitive advantage.

This is the problem with turning youth sport into one giant academy with prescriptive rules about technique. What begins as a strategy for spreading good ideas can end up throttling them.

Jones also likes to wrong-foot expectations with big-picture strategy. Before taking the England job, he was associated with a very un-English style of rugby; he was a pioneer of creating space rather than thundering forward play. When South Africa won the World Cup in 2007, it was Jones, as technical adviser, who helped them to be more imaginative.

“England had become too nice,” he told me. “They needed someone back who had a bit of mongrel about him.” This led Jones to appoint Dylan Hartley as England’s new captain. Born in New Zealand, Hartley is a fierce front-row forward with a troubled disciplinary record.

Most people assumed that, having taken that risk, Jones would be ruthless about cutting Chris Robshaw, the deposed captain. As a pundit during the World Cup, he had singled out Robshaw for special criticism, saying that the then captain didn’t have “that point of difference” – another way of saying that he was average.

As coach, however, Jones has made Robshaw the team’s linchpin. “He is giving a lot of leadership, just in a different way,” he explained. Jones grasps that leadership, however intellectually brilliant, cannot exist in a vacuum. It relies on supportive senior players. He calls them the “glue”, the unflashy workers who knit the team together.

So Jones has exploited three layers of ­surprise: as a teacher, a tactician and a selector. His decisions have been proved right. Yet you sense that if they had been widely anticipated at the time, he would have done something altogether different – and made that work, too.

He recalls a speech at a coaching conference given by Marcello Lippi, who led the Italian football team to victory in the 2006 World Cup. “Your job as a head coach is to put your personality into the team,” Lippi advised. “But at the same time, you don’t annul the personalities of individuals. It’s that fine balance.”

Jones’s success with England reinforces the idea that coaches are most effective when they complement the character of their team. So far, he has pragmatically allowed England to be very English.

But isn’t he a rugby romantic?

“You can have a great idea of how you want to play the game. But age teaches you you’ve got to win. That’s the only way you can develop teams,” he said.

So winning is like liquidity, whereas developing the team is investment. Everyone wants their investment to pay off over the long term, but you can’t go bust while waiting. Jones had a pithier version. “Romantics don’t last long, mate,” he said, laughing. 

This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge