The England head coach talks selection, statistics and sleeping at his desk
Eddie Jones on his coaching methods
Eddie Jones has a big smile on his face as he settles himself into a sun-dappled corner of Pennyhill Park, where he has an office even when the England squad are not in camp.
He’s been busy over recent weeks, travelling around the country to watch Gallagher Premiership matches, but the return of international rugby in the northern hemisphere isn’t far away now. England face the Barbarians at Twickenham on 25 October before their final Six Nations fixture against Italy on Saturday 31 October and then they will compete in the Autumn Nations Cup in November.
For now, though, Jones gives his thoughts on the current state of the game and provides an insight into his coaching methods…
Rugby World: What do you get from seeing a game live that you can’t from watching on TV?
Eddie Jones: As national coach, I’m going to games to watch players. I look to see how they react to situations, how they relate to other players, what they do off the ball.
Most of the vision is about on the ball and I want to see what players are doing off the ball. Even if you look at the best players in the world, 90% of what they do is off the ball.
RW: Is it interesting hearing the players communicate with no fans in stadiums at the moment?
EJ: 100%. It’s really evident. In the Northampton-Wasps game, the difference in the level of communication between the two teams… A couple of players were quite boisterous.
I always look back to the Champions League last year, Liverpool v Barcelona. In football you’re so close to the players you can see who is talking and who isn’t. Virgil van Dijk compared to everyone else was a real captain, leading and gesticulating.
Barcelona were going one, two, three, four down. (Lionel) Messi leads by his brilliance, not by his energy or communication. When the team is doing it tough, that’s what you need.
RW: So who was talking in the Northampton-Wasps game?
EJ: Jimmy Gopperth. You see the value he adds to the team; it shows the importance of foreign players in the competition. You look at an experienced guy like him helping someone like Jacob Umaga – that’s an unbelievable role model for him.
RW: How easy is it to change your mind on a subject? Can you be won round on a player, selection, tactics?
EJ: You’ve got to have your own opinion, but there is value you can get from other people and you need to be open to hearing other views. The big difference in hearing the media view is they generally look at the big things about a player – one big run or one big tackle.
RW: Who is the most improved England player since the World Cup in Japan last year?
EJ: A couple of guys are going in the right direction. Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph – both of those guys have had reasonably celebrated careers up to now and I think the best is ahead of them. In the forwards, Tom Curry and Charlie Ewels have massive potential.
RW: You’ve said you need to improve your selection. How and why are you doing that?
EJ: I think you can always get better, that’s key, and in my job as national coach, selection is 90% of the job. We’ll have five days to prepare for the Italy game (in October) and that means two hours on the field. My ability to have an impact in coaching the team technically is marginal but in selection it’s enormous.
I’m always looking at ways to improve. We don’t have a metric looking at off-the-ball data. Look at Mako Vunipola, probably the best loosehead in the world. He has ten carries a game, that’s 30 seconds. He makes 15 tackles, that’s another 45 seconds. So that’s 75 seconds out of 80 minutes.
That’s what’s recorded, but what about all the things he does outside of that period of time? How he affects the game, because you’d don’t have to be on the ball to affect the game. It’s measuring what players do off the ball to give us far greater objective information on players’ performance.
We’re looking to investigate that. Baseball has shown the way with metrics and football is moving into that. Rugby is quite slow in that area, probably because of the cost.
RW: So you back Moneyball principles?
EJ: It’s Astroball actually. That’s a mixture of metrics and intuition, so you still get a feel for it. That’s a great book if you haven’t read it. And The Cubs Way is similar to Astroball – metrics and intuition. It’s about getting the balance right and we’re investigating ways of getting better at doing it.
It’s like Jimmy Gopperth as I mentioned earlier. It’s being able to bring a player into a team, someone who maybe doesn’t look like the greatest player but it’s the value he adds to the team. Like Chris Robshaw did for us.
RW: What has been your biggest learning in all your years as a coach?
EJ: That I don’t know much. In all of history, as a young coach coming through you think you know everything, but the longer you coach the more you know you don’t know.
Look at Manchester City v Lyon (Lyon won 3-1 in the Champions League) – no one thought Lyon would win in all seriousness but that’s the beauty of the game. The best coach in the world with the best players beaten by another side – how? That’s the game.
It shows you don’t know everything and that maybe there’s a problem in the team. When you’re going well, you don’t mine deep enough. The more you learn as a coach, it is sometimes about digging deeper.
RW: Is that why you’re still coaching because you’re still learning?
EJ: It’s like a piece of string – you don’t know the end of it and the further you get the more you learn. That’s the great thing.
RW: Do you think you’ll coach forever?
EJ: No, everyone has a certain time. Speaking to Sir Alex Ferguson, I asked him, “Why did you give up?” He said he just knew.
I usually get up around 5am but I might wake up one morning and not really want to get up at 5am, I want to sleep in, and then you start thinking about those decisions. I remember as a player playing my last games, I’d usually do the off-the-ball type of stuff, diving on the ball and so on, but when I didn’t want to do that I thought it was time to give up.
RW: The Edge cricket documentary looks at England’s rise to number one under Andy Flower but also the mental pressures on players. How do you balance driving performance and players’ mental health?
EJ: I’ve had to evolve. Rugby has changed immensely, players have changed, and you have to change if you want to stay in the game. The bang-on-the-table, lead-with-emotion style is valuable at times, but it’s more working together.
My generation of people coming through, we were educated just to do it, if you’re not good enough find a way to do it, don’t look for excuses and so on. I remember one of the great mistakes I made was I wanted my daughter to be like me. She’s 27 now and tough as teak, she works as a logistics officer for the Wallabies, but growing up I wanted her to be like me and she wasn’t.
That was a real learning for me as a coach too, the next generation doesn’t think like me. Every generation has it much easier than the last. The world is changing and you’ve got to change with it.
RW: So have you mellowed? Do you get less angry now?
EJ: I don’t remember once raising my voice with the England team. Because I don’t feel it would be effective. I remember one game when I realised the change. We were playing Samoa (in 2017) and were playing terribly; we were sloppy and it looked like we didn’t care.
It was coming up to half-time and I was angry and I thought that would be the time I’d have gone at the team, but I thought about a different approach on the way down. I thought, ‘I need the players to solve this’.
So before we all got together I told the players to work out what they needed to do, then we’d have a chat. They did that and went out in the second half and played really well. That showed the change in approach.
RW: Is it important to you to empower players like that?
EJ: They have their voice but there are also certain things that are non-negotiable while others are negotiable. One thing for me that isn’t negotiable is how hard we work.
Why do players have a coach? Why does Roger Federer at 39, with two sets of twins, one of the wealthiest guys in the world, why does he have a coach telling him what to do? Because they’ll make you do what you don’t want to do.
RW: Did you raise your voice with Japan?
EJ: At times when it was appropriate. But if I went back to Japan now, having seen how it’s changed, I don’t think it would be appropriate. Generations keep changing all the time. When I first went to Japan in the Nineties there was no graffiti because people were socially cohesive. Now there’s graffiti because people want to be individual.
RW: How do you know which approach to use with different players or different teams?
EJ: I don’t think I’ve got any great skills. I think experience teaches you that. I’m always trying to find an emotional attachment with someone.
I was lucky enough to chat to Louis van Gaal at the airport in Amsterdam about 18 months ago. He was two years out from Manchester United, which wasn’t a great experience for him, and he didn’t know who I was or what I did but through a contact we had lunch.
As we were talking he kept putting his hand on my forearm. I was asking about what he thinks you need to be successful and he said it’s about establishing relationships. He said, “I don’t know you and I’m trying to establish a relationship with you right now”.
That’s a good reinforcement of something you need and getting that emotional attachment. I’ve been reading another book about selling and it said the most successful salespeople are usually the people who touch.
RW: How did you feel with the news stories around Dylan Hartley’s book and you?
EJ: By coincidence, I arranged to meet Dylan for a coffee on the Sunday (of that week) because I hadn’t seen him for a while. I always thought we had a good relationship and think we still have.
I went to his place before Northampton-Wasps, he was honest about it and I don’t worry about these things at all. With any book, you can pick something out to make a headline and from what Dylan said 90% of it is positive.
RW: If you could pick the brain of any coach – alive or dead – who would it be?
EJ: I’ve been lucky, I’ve chatted to Alex Ferguson… He wasn’t a coach but Douglas Jardine (England cricket captain on the ‘Bodyline’ Ashes tour of Australia in 1932-33). He changed the whole mindset of the team; England teams were quite conservative and he changed the whole mindset. We used that to shape our tour of Australia in 2016.
RW: Are coaches or referees the biggest obstacle to quick rugby in the Premiership?
EJ: Referees, and I mean that in a positive way. The referees are there to referee the laws of the game and the laws should be refereed in a relatively strict way or we allow the game to go away from the laws. We’ve seen that in the last four or five years and that’s why we’ve seen so much kicking.
Sometimes there will be 30 penalties a game. The Northampton-Wasps game had a lot of penalties but it was a great game of rugby – there was great transition and a great contest at the breakdown.
The refs are finding their way (with the breakdown law application) but they’re going in the right direction. I think they could go harder; we need to keep players on their feet.
RW: If you could change one law, what would it be?
EJ: The law I’d experiment with is that the only player in the defensive side who is allowed to use their hands (at the breakdown) is the tackler. That would keep everyone else up; the second man coming in would have to stay on their feet and clean. It would also lift the height of the ruck, which I think we need to do because of the injury implications.
RW: What if it was a double tackle?
EJ: That’s a hard one.
RW: Breaks in play – setting up scrums, lineouts and so on – seem even more noticeable in games without fans. Would you like to see that change?
EJ: 100%. The whole game needs to be sped up. If players are going down injured but aren’t interfering with play, then play on. I’d stop the clock for scrums and get rid of the huddle for lineouts. At one stage we got rid of the huddle and now we’ve allowed it to come back.
The game is cyclical – you get rid of something, someone brings it back and then it comes back in.
RW: What’s the greatest threat to Test rugby?
EJ: At the moment, obviously travel. But generally I think the game and Test rugby is healthy. What I’d like to see is for rugby to create something like Twenty20 cricket, something in between Test rugby and serious domestic rugby.
We need serious domestic competitions and we need Test rugby, but look at Twenty20 cricket… It’s brought a new crowd in, it’s brought new skills to players, it’s brought excitement. Can we bring that into rugby, another level of rugby? Because sevens hasn’t done it. The reason for that is the best players don’t play sevens.
We need almost an abridged version of Test rugby that’s faster and quicker, like the IPL in cricket. Watching Test cricket, I’ve noticed how skilful players are, it’s (Twenty20) changed the way they play now. Playing something like the IPL for a few weeks a year in rugby would create new skills and players would be able to bring that to Test rugby.
RW: What’s your vision for it? How many players etc?
EJ: A 12 v 12 game. You’d still have scrums and lineouts and rucks, and there would be more space. The difference in space when there are 12 or 13 as opposed to 15 is massive. Space is getting tighter and tighter because locks now tackle like back-rowers and back-rowers tackle in the centres.
When I coached Japan we did a whole pre-season 12 v 12 and I think that’s one of the reasons we did well – players were able to operate in space under immense pressure.
RW: Have you done that with England?
EJ: I don’t have the time to do it with England.
RW: Premiership DoRs have been positive about improved communication with you recently. What’s changed?
EJ: Normally that would be the RFU’s role and I’ve purposefully tried to keep out of it, but during this period of time I need to come into it. We’ve cut three camps from the next 12 months to help players’ load. It’s important to do that, to all share the burden.
RW: How are the RFU cuts going to impact your team?
EJ: I’m not sure at the moment, but whatever it is we’ll cope with it. Scott Wisemantel and I coached Japan for two years by ourselves so we can cope with anything. Whether it’s just me and two other assistants, whatever happens we’ll get on with it. Any sacrifices we make will be small compared to what is happening in the world.
RW: Do you have any fears for the wider community game?
EJ: Not at all. It’s cyclical. Every cycle you have the same. Whether it was Australia post-World Cup or here post-World Cup, what tends to happen after a World Cup is that you’ve started these projects and staff numbers go from 150 to 300, then the money from the World Cup isn’t there any more so you have to cut back to get back to where you were pre-World Cup and then you start again.
RW: Is it a case of fine-tuning or a major overhaul for England to win the next World Cup?
EJ: A bit of both. Whatever works we’ll keep and other areas we’ll improve. If you had five gears in a car, it’s about finding sixth gear. If games keep getting faster, and hopefully they will, we really need to make sure that if an opportunity comes we take it. Traditionally we’ve not been good at that, so we need to get organised and be better at that.
RW: Who are the best young players in the Premiership?
EJ: There’s a few. Ollie Thorley is coming through, Jacob Umaga, Fraser Dingwall, George Furbank, Jack Willis, Ben Curry, Charlie Ewels I’ve mentioned. What’s also noticeable is the number of players coming through from the Championship and doing well. It’s really showing how many good players went there and took their opportunity.
RW: What about a young scrum-half? Or are you planning to rely on Ben Youngs until 2023?
EJ: Hopefully he’ll keep going. Alex Mitchell is coming through and Dan Robson has played well.
RW: How have you changed your lifestyle since suffering a stroke back in 2013?
EJ: I try to eat better, drink less, sleep more, although that’s debatable. I generally try to take care of myself better.
RW: Do you sleep under your desk?
EJ: Not under it but sometimes I sleep on my desk! One of the habits I got in Japan is that I can sleep standing up on the train, so I can fall asleep anywhere.
I generally spend 20-30 minutes during the day – it’s like a first half and a second half, so I feel revived for the second half in the afternoon.
RW: What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
EJ: Intangibles by Joan Ryan. It’s about team chemistry and features baseball. I rewatched Moneyball during lockdown, too; baseball is interesting with the recruitment aspect.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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