The highly-touted rugby league coach will join up with Eddie Jones's England group
Introducing Jason Ryles, England’s new skills coach
England rugby fans may not know much about Jason Ryles, the man coming in as a full-time skills coach with England after helping the Melbourne Storm to glory in the most recent Australian rugby league season. But in the NRL, his name is certainly respected.
Such is the regard for the Melbourne Storm assistant that he is regularly discussed as one of the next big names to become a head coach in the 13-player code. Having reportedly turned down some big gigs in league already, Ryles’s star is on the rise.
Which makes his signature a real coup for Eddie Jones and the RFU. Having served as a consultant with England since 2016, he will come into his first permanent role in union now he has finished his business Down Under. Storm beat Penrith Panthers in the NRL grand final 26-20.
When the new appointment was announced in late January, Jones said of compatriot Ryles: “He comes from a rugby league background and we feel what he can offer as a coach, particularly with the forwards around the ruck, will help us with the way the game is going.”
So what else can he bring to union?
“A couple of things have to relate back to him as a player as he’s brought some of those strengths into coaching,” says Frank Ponissi, director of football at the Storm. Ponissi also has experience coaching union at Clermont Auvergne and Northampton, and served as a consultant with the Springboks in 2003.
“As a player, Jason had a couple of things that stood out. He obviously played at a high level – for Australia, in State of Origin and he played NRL for a long, long time. He was very good in contact. He always had a big, physical presence about him because he was a big man, but he was quite mobile for his size.
“He was very difficult to tackle but also good with the ball. The criticism of the modern-day rugby league front-rower is that they are very straight up and down, very good at carrying the ball but not using it. The old timers would say the skilful front-rowers have gone out of the game. Jason was a throwback as he had the athletic abilty of a modern front-rower in terms of leg speed and getting go-forward, but he could use the football before the defensive line and after the defensive line, in terms of offload.
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“Those are the technical things that have given him a bit of an edge as a coach. He’s worked with our forwards since 2016 and really developed the skills of our players. Their contact skills are much better. And while he had that physical presence as a player, he’s also got that presence as a coach. But at the same time, Jason was a really popular team member – he has a great rapport with players – and that’s one of his strengths.”
Ryles was a prop for St George Illawarra, briefly the Catalans Dragons and then the Sydney Roosters before finishing up his top-end career at the Storm.
According to Castleford Tigers centre Cheyse Blair, who was with the Storm in 2016 and 2017, there is a tale of when Ryles signed for Melbourne at the tail-end of his career. It is tradition, Blair says, for the Storm to do a military-style boot camp in pre-season, battling workload and sleep deprivation, a rough, demanding introduction to the season.
The veteran Ryles allegedly took part in his first but forgot to wear appropriate protective clothing and after powering through could barely walk for the chaffing and bleeding days afterwards. He cracked on but vowed, so the story goes, to “never do it again”.
There is an apt Americanism when talking to peers about Ryles. It is ‘sticktoitiveness’ – the art of dogged perseverance.
Blair says Ryles the player was a “hard man, obviously really big back in those days, but he represented Australia, so he’s done everything at the highest level and that’s why he’s probably such a good bloke to learn off. If he gives you tips you take them on board.”
As a squad man, Blair says, Ryles is good at recognising where players are, physically and mentally. He likes a beer and is easy to chat to – but Blair adds that you’d better have your defensive fundamentals set or words will be had.
Another player who considers this is Sale wing Denny Solomona, who trained with Ryles at the Storm and has been in England union camp when Ryles has come in as a consultant.
Solomona explains: “With him coaching in a different code, with the fundamentals he’s learnt in league, I think he will go well. From my experience training with him in Melbourne but also being coached by him in England camp, his fundamentals in defence are uncompromising. I don’t know him personally but it could be a bit like Andy Farrell, from what I’ve heard – Farrell is meant to be right up there for defence.
“I’m not saying they’ll coach exactly the same, but Storm pride themselves on defence. Their motto is: ‘Defence wins championships and attack wins games’. So having been at Storm with him I know he’ll be a great coach in union.
“Skills is a vast name (for the role that Steve Borthwick had before Ryles). Everyone knows Eddie Jones. It’s his way or the highway, really. So the way Eddie wants to run his team, he’s brought in the perfect man to gather around the likes of Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje, all the senior England boys to make sure the standards stay high.
“Eddie has recruited well throughout his reign as England coach, bringing in ex-players because they know how it works, what makes players tick, what goes on in their mind before a game, how to relax them or rile them up. Having Jason come in from Melbourne Storm – the best rugby league team in the world, you could say – is not only credit to him as a player and coach but to Eddie as a head coach.”
Solomona agrees that Ryles is great at reading when “boys are close to breaking point” and knows when to push and when to pull. On the technical side of defence, the winger says that the coach is great on the details you pick up when you’re a kid but take for granted later in life. Dominate the collision on either side of the ball and rucking becomes easier too.
Ponissi believes that a smart Jones will use Ryles not only on the defensive side of the ball but in the lead up to contact. Covering the micro-skills that go into a succesful ball carry is an area of strength for Ryles, he says, adding that when he was an opposition player, the Melbourne coaches used to talk about handling the hard-to-tackle forward because so many quick plays were sparked by him.
As a player, Solomona adds, Ryles would regularly empty his tank, having to be taken off for periods because he had exerted himself so much in working for the team. Asked if he has taken that hard-yards approach into coaching, Ponissi gives a little insight.
“It’s been interesting and satisfying watching his development as a coach,” Ponissi starts. “We got him as a player in the back-end of his career and he came down here, investing into the club and the way we go about things and the way (legendary head coach) Craig Bellamy coaches. He basically developed an appetite to be a coach in his last few years here.
“By his own admission, before he got here coaching was probably not a huge priority for him for post-playing. But what I like about him is that when he left us he went back to his home town in Wollongong and he captain-coached in the lower league there – a bit like the division below the English Championship. When you captain-coach those particular clubs, you’re doing everything. It’s semi-professional rugby.
“He did that for two years, and in the second year did it as well as having a job. He did a terrific two-year apprenticeship (with Western Suburbs Red Devils). Rather than go straight into the professional ranks he went into grass-roots coaching and that paid dividends.
“He became our forwards coach in 2016. He’s worked really hard and what has helped him as a rugby league coach is that since the end of 2016 he’s worked with Eddie and the England team. We’ve allowed him to do that and we’ve been the beneficiary of that because he’s come back a better coach after working in a different sport, with different coaches. He’s also done a lot of professional development and really worked hard at becoming a better coach.
“Five years isn’t a long time in coaching but he’s made a rapid, rapid improvement. It was only inexperience when he first got here but to be a coach (wanted) by a team like England rugby union tells you how far he’s come.”
Those in league project a big future in coaching for him. Some had hoped he could yet be persuaded to stay in Australia. England fans will be keen to see what difference-makers he can tease out of their stars. It’s certainly an exciting times for the up-and-coming coach.
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