Less than 18 months ago, the England rugby team was in dreadful shape. It had just been thrashed by Australia at Twickenham, becoming the first host nation to be knocked out of the World Cup at the group stage. Stuart Lancaster, the coach, was sacked, and the search began for his successor.
Though England had never previously employed a foreign coach, the Rugby Football Union was drawn to the Australian who had masterminded the most spectacular performance in the 2015 tournament: the victory by Japan’s “Brave Blossoms” over the mighty South Africa.
It was a risky hire. Eddie Jones, whose management philosophy earned him an advisory role at the investment bank Goldman Sachs, had tasted success but also failure in his two-decade coaching career. Small, mischievous and fiercely demanding – his nickname among the Japanese team was “the Devil” – he was known for driving some players to great heights and others to tears.
Noting that Jones, like Lancaster, had once been a teacher, David Campese, one of Australia’s best ever players, described the appointment as “desperate”. “Rugby is a professional sport and we don’t need schoolteachers,” he said.
Fortunately for England, Campese was wrong. Beating Scotland 61-21 at Twickenham on 11 March, Eddie Jones’s team retained the Six Nations title. It also equalled New Zealand’s world record for successive wins by a major Test-playing nation. Victory over Ireland on Saturday would extend England’s streak to 19 matches.
The world rankings still put them behind the All Blacks. But the gap is closing. And few would deny that Eddie Jones, at 57, deserves much of the credit. Born to an Australian father and a Japanese-American mother who was interned in a US camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jones grew up in the rough Sydney suburb of Chifley. He channelled his aggression into cricket, in which he was known for his foul mouth, and then rugby. Though only 12.5 stone, he excelled as a hooker, turning out for Randwick, one of Australia’s strongest clubs.
When he realised that he would never achieve his dream of representing Australia, he completed an education degree and taught at a private school in Sydney, where he met his Japanese wife, Hiroko. He loved the job, and today he says that it was the ideal preparation for coaching professional sport at the highest level.
“You’re reading people,” Jones told the Financial Times last year. “Messaging every one of them differently. Some need their heads massaging. Some need a cup of coffee. With England now, that’s what we have to do. There’s a science to the plan. Then there is the art. The art is all about relationships.”
In 1994, Jones left teaching to coach full-time. His first big success came in 2001 with the ACT Brumbies, when they won the southern hemisphere’s Super 12 competition. Soon after that, he was appointed Australia coach, leading the team to the World Cup final on home soil in 2003, in which they narrowly lost to Clive Woodward’s England.
More disappointment followed. In 2005, after a disastrous run of results, Jones was sacked. His stock fell further at the Queensland Reds, which finished at the bottom of the Super 14 table in 2007 before he resigned.
Redemption was swift. That same year, amid howls of protest in Australia, he worked as a technical adviser to the South African team that won the World Cup. After a brief coaching stint at the English team Saracens, Jones worked in club rugby in Japan and in 2012 was appointed national coach.
As in his previous roles, the players saw the two sides of Jones. The first was the caring principal who remembered their birthdays, learned the names of their partners and children and treated them as individuals. The other persona was the fierce PE master who seldom seemed satisfied with his team’s performance.
The Japanese players had to make up for their small size with superior conditioning, and so Jones held as many as four training sessions per day, starting at 5am. His criticism was so cutting that some players reportedly hid behind furniture to avoid being seen. But when Japan beat the Springboks, Jones’s methods were vindicated – as they have been with England.
He says that his ambition is to get better every day “as a coach, as a father, as a husband”, and he demands the same from the English players. Without significantly changing the squad he inherited from Lancaster, he has transformed a group of individuals lacking confidence into world-beaters.
Derek Wyatt, the former Labour MP for Sittingbourne and Sheppey who played rugby for England, noted last year that Jones had the rare ability to “look inside a player’s soul and tell them what they are thinking, how they can improve their skills and what they can possibly achieve”.
The true test will come when England play the All Blacks. Unfortunately for fans (and undoubtedly to Jones’s frustration), they will have to wait until the end of 2018. If all goes to plan, Jones will then lead England to the World Cup the following year – in Japan.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain