In his recently published autobiography, England coach Eddie Jones reveals the lessons that have shaped his career – and can't resist a swipe at his 'friends' in the media
Book review: The making of Eddie Jones
How do you pack Eddie Jones’s life story into a book light enough to pick up? Publishers Macmillan have managed it somehow, with one of the best autobiographies of 2019 detailing the England coach’s head-spinning experiences at the rugby coalface. Still a few days shy of his 60th birthday, Jones doubtless has many more adventures ahead.
Eddie Jones: My Life and Rugby has been written with award-winning author Donald McRae and sales of the hardback edition alone have soared past 100,000 – a big number for a sports title in the ever-growing digital age.
The book opens with the drama of Japan’s defeat of South Africa at the 2015 World Cup. Jones smashes his walkie-talkie in anger when Michael Leitch declines to opt for the late kick at goal that would secure a draw, but in the next moment acknowledges his captain’s bravery.
Japan scored from the scrum, Jones was hailed for masterminding rugby’s greatest upset, and England came calling a few weeks later. Such is the ‘sliding doors’ nature of sport.
If he has enjoyed his time at the helm for England, it’s not glaringly obvious from the book. He writes: “When I watch so much English club rugby, I often wonder: ‘Is it ever going to change? Whether it’s cultural, the length of the season, the weather, the different competitions or the number of games, the widespread lack of imagination and skill is an anchor that the competition seems unable to lift.”
Later he is critical of – in his view – an English tendency to want to be told what to do, rather than be questioning and proactive. He says the Brumbies team that he led to Super 12 success was the most intelligent group of players he’s encountered, followed by the 2007 Springboks.
His fiercest criticism is saved for the media, whom he attacks with a regularity I’ve not seen before in a rugby book. He says that Sir Alex Ferguson’s best piece of advice to him was not to read the papers but evidently Jones devours every word because otherwise how would he know that “a lot of (the English media), particularly the more experienced ones, are miserable when we win and miserable when we lose… there is an element of absurdity to the coverage because the English media feeds off hysteria… while they lunch and we work, they misplace opinion for fact. The vanity is astounding.”
Scathing he may be but Jones appreciates the power of the fourth estate, manipulating them to his advantage, as when he got Steve Hansen answering questions about ‘pressure’ in the week of the RWC 2019 semi-final. Jones has engaged a communications expert, David Pembroke, for more than 20 years to help shape his messages and they converse almost daily.
Those of you who read the 2018 biography, Rugby Maverick, will be familiar with the key stepping stones of Jones’s rugby journey but My Life and Rugby enables you to devour the detail in the man’s own words.
His family history is littered with pain and prejudice, with his Japanese mother Nellie being interned in America during World War Two and later subjected to racism in Japan and Australia. The young Eddie used sport as a ticket to inclusion and was blessed to grow up with the Ella brothers, Gary, Glen and Mark; the Matraville High School and Randwick teams in which they and Jones played have achieved legendary status, Randwick reaching 16 consecutive Grand Finals from 1977-92 and winning 12 of them.
The ‘Randwick Way’, pioneered by Pat Howard’s grandfather Cyril Towers and taught later by Bob Dwyer, featured straight running, short passing, quick ball movement and constant support, and when played close to the opposition defence was almost impossible to stop.
It shaped Jones’s coaching and underpinned the Brumbies’ success around the turn of the century, with the Aussie franchise operating a highly structured game designed to get their best attackers running at the opposition’s worst defenders in the third phase of play.
At its height, just about everybody tried to copy them and Jones writes, in the wake of the Brumbies’ 36-3 rout of the Sharks in the 2001 Super 12 final: “Rugby will never feel quite the same again for me.”
His reign as Wallaby boss started well and included a World Cup final, but things began to go wrong when Brett Robinson was appointed the ARU’s new head of high performance. Robinson had been his captain at Brumbies when Jones was coach; now he was Jones’s boss and the relationship didn’t work.
Jones says he’s not good at managing up and that episode – which ended with his sacking in 2005 – taught him never to get involved with a union’s problems but simply to manage the national team.
In fact, if there’s a single reason why you should enjoy this book it’s because of the way Jones explains how so many of his experiences and observations influenced his future thinking and led him to operate more successfully.
Examples are numerous, beginning with Ian Chappell’s bullish leadership of the Australia cricket team and Jones’s teaching years at the International Grammar School in Sydney.
He learnt never to trust administrators after the Japan union went back on a pledge to put him and Glen Ella in charge of the country’s RWC 1999 campaign. He learnt to always prepare for the unexpected after a late arrival at Ellis Park for an International. He learnt to be more sensitive to younger players from his shortcomings as a father to his daughter Chelsea.
He learnt how having an “independent sounding board”, a role he fulfilled for 13 weeks with the 2007 World Cup-winning Boks, could benefit a management team and with England he employed Neil Craig largely to monitor his own coaching behaviour.
And he learnt heaps from engaging with the likes of Pep Guardiola and Ric Charlesworth, the latter “the most interesting coach in world sport” and an expert in how to maximize ‘performance conversation’ – the downtime in a match when the ball is not in play.
Jones admits that, aside from that short spell with the Boks, he struggled to enjoy rugby from 2003-08 but he is addicted to the game, to such an extent that he spends holidays coaching at one of his former clubs, Suntory. He ran a session for Japanese schoolchildren the day before November’s World Cup final.
“My purpose is to coach rugby. I’m not much good at anything else,” Jones says. “I don’t have a long list of interesting hobbies or a bucket list of crazy adventures to complete. I just like living a simple life and coaching rugby. It’s hard to explain the joy I get out of it.”
Eddie Jones: My Life and Rugby is published by Macmillan, RRP £20, and you can buy it here.
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