Coach Eddie Jones led England through a memorable World Cup campaign, despite falling short at the final hurdle, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
‘This is when the World Cup really comes to life, when you get down to the best four teams in the world,’ said coach Eddie Jones during a team meeting in the lead-up to England’s titanic semi-final against the All Blacks. Standing before his players, Jones continued: ‘The whole world is with you for these games now and you get to be part of it and show your best.
The other great part of it is that we get to play the best team in the world and you’ve got to respect a team like that. But we’ll get them boys, we’ll get them this week.’
A few days later, and England would produce one of the all-time great World Cup performances to dismantle the former back-to-back world champions to the tune of 19-7. It was a scoreline that flattered the All Blacks. After that victory England released a video showing Jones delivering that speech to his players. It provided an insight into the behind-the-scenes team dynamics that are not often seen by everyday fans.
And if some were surprised by England’s demolition job that sent the All Blacks packing with their tails between their legs, Jones would not have been. He had been plotting and planning for ages.
‘As soon as we saw the draw in Kyoto two and half years ago, we guesstimated that we’d be playing New Zealand in the semi-finals, and we’ve been building a tactical and physical game to beat New Zealand,’ he said. ‘And now we have the opportunity to put those two and a half years of planning into practice.’
England did just that, and then some. In a tactical and technical masterclass, they utterly outclassed the All Blacks. As it turned out, that match would prove to be England’s ‘final’. A week later, they failed to come close to replicating such as a performance, with the Boks instead turning on the style as they handed Jones’ charges a humbling 32-12 defeat.
It was a result that brought a disappointing end to what had otherwise been an almost perfect World Cup campaign for England, with Jones once again living up to the perception that he remains a coach with the Midas touch.
If you may have doubts after the failure in the final, it’s worth still considering these words he delivered to the England team just before they left for the International Stadium Yokohama to face the mighty All Blacks: ‘I reckon I’ve coached maybe 150 Tests and I’ve never seen a team more ready for it,’ he said. ‘We’re tactically pretty clear but we can change our game. Go at them right from the first minutes of the game, and don’t hold back!’
England took the ball through seven powerful phases within the first two minutes of the Test, culminating in a stunning try after a sweeping movement that took play half the length of the field.
As the brains behind England’s success, Jones’ journey is a storied one. He experienced his first World Cup final as a coach in 2003, guiding his native Australia to the final, when they suffered an agonising defeat to England. In 2005, he was dismissed by the Wallabies, and a couple of years later he was preparing to take up a three-year deal with English Premiership club Saracens when he received a surprise phone call from Springbok coach Jake White.
Ironically, South Africa’s present director of rugby, Rassie Erasmus, was set to serve as the Boks’ technical adviser at the 2007 World Cup, but was headhunted by Western Province. Erasmus opted for the permanent move to the Cape, while White delivered a masterstroke in luring Jones into the Springbok management group.
The wily coach brought a fresh perspective to proceedings, as Bok legend Bryan Habana revealed after South Africa had gone on to claim the Webb Ellis trophy with a win over England in Paris.
‘Eddie just gave us little nuggets of wisdom, an insight into how outsiders saw us,’ Habana said. ‘He has an incredible rugby brain. His nuances are some of the best I’ve ever seen.’
Jones has described those years working with the Boks as one of his ‘greatest experiences’. From there, he spent time working at Saracens, before heading to Japan, where he would eventually be appointed head coach of the Brave Blossoms.
Then comes another connection with South Africa as Jones masterminded Japan’s historic win over the Springboks in their opening game of the 2015 World Cup. By his own admission, he would not be coach of England had it not been for that stunning victory. It was a result that sent his stocks as a coach through roof of the world rugby, and although he briefly headed to Cape Town after agreeing to a four-year deal with the Stormers, this contract was quickly torn up when England came calling with the lure of the pound and a top international post.
When Jones took charge of the Red Rose brigade, England were at their lowest ebb after becoming the first – and still the only – host nation to exit a Rugby World Cup at the pool stage. His impact was immediate, though, with England going on to win the 2016 Grand Slam and stringing together a record 18 successive wins.
Although England slumped last year, it was a period that brought out Jones’ ruthless streak. He showed the door to a number of gnarly veterans and brought through a host of fresh faces to reinvigorate the team’s buildup to the 2019 World Cup.
According to White, his old friend is a mix of enigmatic Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and fearless former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson.
‘Look at his record: he’s a winner,’ White told the Sun newspaper on the eve of the final. ‘He is clever enough to work out what he needs. He brought in younger players like Guardiola has done at City and cut older ones and big names like Ferguson did at United. He wants to be the fun-loving guy like Guardiola, but is not afraid to make the big calls like Ferguson.’
England’s evolution under Eddie came to fruition at the World Cup, where they embraced a brand of ‘complete’ rugby founded on powerful set pieces, fearless defence, supreme fitness and an ability to adapt and fire on attack.
Besides cruising through the pool stages – albeit having their game against France cancelled – England then trounced the Wallabies in the quarter-final, before their performance for the ages against the All Blacks.
The master of mind games, Jones was said to be behind the idea of England’s V-shaped response to the All Blacks’ haka, aimed at throwing a curveball at New Zealand while laying down a challenge of their own.
It’s classic Jones. His players have regularly spoken of his jibes and chirps that keep their on their toes, but hold them to the highest of standards.
‘You always get honesty with Eddie, you know exactly where you stand,’ fullback Elliot Daly said. ‘He has coached against so many teams that come Monday morning, he knows how we are going to beat the team on the weekend. We all buy into that and it’s worked so far in the tournament.’
Jones is poised to continue as England’s head coach until at least 2021, while earlier this year there were already some hints that his contract could be extended to retain his services through to the 2023 World Cup.
It will be interesting to see how the result of the final may influence this process and immediately afterwards, Jones said England could have ‘no excuses’.
‘It’s not the time now to discuss my future, but this team will keep developing. I can’t fault the preparation of the players who have worked hard the entire World Cup. I think they played with a lot of pride and passion. We weren’t good enough today in the final and congratulations to South Africa on an outstanding performance.
‘South Africa are worthy winners, but I can’t fault the effort of our players … my team are hurting badly.’
It’s sure to be a pain that will take some time to pass, but knowing Jones, he’ll come back stronger sooner rather than later.
OWEN FARRELL’S INFLUENCE
There is no doubt the England captain played a key role as a leader and dynamic playmaker during this World Cup, while his inspirational eve-of-match briefings emerged as one of their secret weapons. It’s a Friday meeting where no coaches are allowed and Farrell and his players take the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart, as teammate George Ford revealed: ‘That is Owen’s meeting, a captain’s meeting, a team meeting. There are no coaches in the room. Owen just asks us how we are feeling and if anyone has anything to say.
‘Often people will get something off their chest if they are thinking about the game. Owen then says his bit and without fail you can hear a pin drop. Everyone is hanging on every word he says. It is very inspirational without tearing the roof down because that is probably not what is needed. Owen has a very good feel for what the team needs and what messages he needs to deliver.’
‘He has been brilliant as a captain. He has been a leader since I have known him at 14. Back then, it was probably a lot more shouting because of frustration but he has developed a huge amount. As a leader I can’t speak highly enough of him. He is the sort of person you want to follow. He leads from the front.’
SOUTH AFRICAN CONNECTION
While Jones’ previous involvement with the Springboks has been well documented, he is not the only coach in the England set-up with a strong South African link.
Another one of Jones’ masterstrokes was to lure John Mitchell from the Bulls to take over the defensive coaching job with England. The New Zealand-born coach, whose influence was clear when he began to make an impact at the Bulls before being lured away from Pretoria last year, quickly went about turning the England defence into a standout strength. Of course, Mitchell has also previously worked at the Lions, which included leading them to the Currie Cup title in 2011, while he even briefly spent time working with the University of KwaZulu-Natal between 2013 and 2014.
Besides Mitchell, England’s scrum coach Neal Hatley previously played for Western Province and the Sharks.
South African vision coach Sherylle Calder worked closely with the England team and fell just short of claiming her third World Cup winner’s medal, having also worked with the triumphant Boks in 2007, and the successful English side of 2003.