Eddie Jones: ‘My coaching wasn’t good enough’

For Eddie Jones, coach of England’s rugby union team, the season started in the worst possible way. But England’s last-minute victory on Saturday against rugby world champions South Africa represents a “rebirth”, he said after the match.

Fly-half Marcus Smith secured England’s 27-26 win with a penalty following earlier devastating losses that put Jones under such pressure this year.

So poor was his side’s performance at this year’s Six Nations Championship, an annual tournament contested against France, Wales, Italy, Scotland and Ireland, that England’s Rugby Football Union, the governing body, commissioned a review into what went wrong.

A fifth-place finish told only part of the story. At the Six Nations, beating the trio of Ireland, Wales and Scotland is an honour known as the Triple Crown. Instead, England lost all three of those matches for the first time in 45 years to achieve the opposite.

It was a feeble defence of the title England had won a year earlier, piling the pressure on Jones and creating a conundrum for the RFU as the critics questioned his suitability to lead the team.

How the narrative has changed since Jones took on the job after England’s early exit from the 2015 World Cup, losing in front of their home fans at the Twickenham stadium in London.

Within weeks of taking over, Jones led England to Six Nations triumph in 2016, transforming the squad, before defending the title in 2017 and winning it again in 2020. Under his leadership, England enjoyed a 17-match winning streak in test matches.

Arguably the defining moment — and disappointment — of his England career, however, was the 2019 World Cup final. The country revelled in the side’s semi-final win against New Zealand, the legendary All Blacks, three-times winners of the competition.

Despite being favourites for the final, England failed to score a try against winners South Africa. It was a double blow for Jones, who is Australian-Japanese, to lose in Yokohama.

Following this year’s dismal defence of the Six Nations, past glories and near-misses could do nothing to stop the media from openly asking if Jones’s time was up.

His job was on the line. But Jones does not shy away from one big reason for England’s poor display: himself.

“We underperformed, mate,” he told the Financial Times. “My coaching wasn’t good enough, there’s no hiding from that, so that’s the end of the story . . . probably 80 per cent of my job is selection [and] I didn’t get that right and we didn’t get the environment right.”

Much has been made of Jones’s intensity as a leader. In Leadership: Lessons From My Life in Rugby, his new book, he talks about waking up Japan’s players at 4.30am to prepare for “hard” training an hour later in the search for the fitness levels that helped the perennial underdogs to beat South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in one of the biggest upsets the game has ever seen.

But when that approach falters in terms of results, critics say Jones’s demanding leadership style has caused high turnover in England’s coaching staff. More recently, he had to defend his comments about British tennis sensation Emma Raducanu, 19, after saying that she “hasn’t done so well” since winning the US Open in September, warning of the trappings of fame for players such as Smith.

But the RFU review found that Jones’s players were “positive and supportive”. However, it identified a number of reasons for the underperformance, ranging from more “stringent” Covid protocols than other teams, to some players suffering from fatigue after playing back-to-back seasons — another side-effect of the pandemic and the disruption it caused to the rugby calendar.

“The players saved him,” says one person with knowledge of the review.

Jones also convinced his superiors, namely RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney, who said: “Eddie approached this review with a great deal of self-awareness and humility, allowing us to look at every aspect of the tournament to identify every small change we can make in order to improve.”

The importance of Sweeney’s decision was elevated because he was in effect also picking a coach to lead the team into the 2023 World Cup, two decades since Jonny Wilkinson’s famous drop goal won England the sport’s most-coveted prize against Jones’s Australia.

Despite the scrutiny of RFU board members, executives and independent experts, Jones insists he never feared being dismissed.

“What do I have to worry about, mate? If they want to sack me, they sack me, then I’m on to my next job. If they want to keep me, I keep working,” Jones says. “Why worry about it? Wasted energy.

“If you worry about things you can’t control, then it’s always going to detract away from what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That approach was vindicated when the RFU supplied its verdict: despite recognising that the campaign had been “suboptimal”, the governing body confirmed its “full support and backing” for Jones.

But Jones can ill-afford further missteps in his leadership as he tries to build a team capable of challenging for the 2023 World Cup in France.

This month’s Autumn Internationals offered him a shot to prove that he’s the man to lead England at the 2023 World Cup. There was a 32-15 win over Australia, followed by the rousing win against South Africa, the reigning world champions, still a sore point for England after coming up so short against the Springboks in the 2019 final.

Three questions for Eddie Jones

Who is your leadership hero?

Ian Chappell, [a former cricketer who played for South Australia and Australia. He is regarded as a great captain of the game and was instrumental in its professionalisation in the 1970s].

If you were not a CEO/leader, what would you be?

I’m still striving to be a good leader — it is a journey with no full stop.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?

Never assume — make things happen.

Going into the match, the two sides’ first meeting since England’s defeat in Japan, Jones had wanted to claim a “South African scalp” ahead of the next edition of the Six Nations in February.

It is one of the few remaining steps towards the next World Cup, an honour Jones has never won as head coach, having been on the losing side twice in two finals, though he was assistant for South Africa’s 2007 win.

In his book, Jones admits that he was so “aggrieved” to lose the 2003 final to England that he allowed his “World Cup obsession to get the better of me”, though he says he is “definitely more balanced about it” now.

I ask why it is not a mistake to be staying on with England; whether he was repeating the error he made in 2003 when he remained with Australia until he was dismissed following a loss of form in 2005.

“The reason it’s not a mistake to stay is because I still don’t think we’ve maximised the potential of the team,” he says. “So if I felt that in 2019 that the team’s potential had been maximised, I would have walked away. I think we’ve got growth in the team . . . and I’d like to have the opportunity to do it.”

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