Few coaches in World Rugby enjoy such notoriety as Eddie Jones, few are so bullish and controversial, and few have enjoyed such a long and storied career. Labelled arrogant by his detractors, Jones knows only victory in Japan will do. He’s the kind of figure people love to fail, trouble is, he rarely does.
Having coached Australia to within seconds of Rugby World Cup victory in 2003, only for current employers England to snatch the William Webb-Ellis Cup in extra time, Jones was on the South Africa coaching ticket that beat England to win in 2007.
A successful stint coaching Japan between 2012 and 2015 culminated in the famous victory over the Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, and a job offer to coach England. An ever present foe throughout the early years of his international coaching career, Jones was offered the role by the RFU, access to the largest playing pool and greatest financial resources in world rugby with the express aim of winning the 2019 World Cup.
Jones’ England have had successful World Cup cycle. They re-established themselves as major players with an incredible run of victories and back to back Six Nations wins in 2016 and 2017, before falling off in 2018. In retrospect, 2018 was a year of transition, disrupted by injuries, in which much of the old guard (Haskell, Hartley, Robshaw, Brown, Care) were slowly shifted out and new, younger, more dynamic talent blooded.
Now, heading into the World Cup, England look to have timed their regeneration perfectly. They boast a physically intimidating, mobile forward pack, a fantastic tactical kicking game and a back division that is a brilliant blend of playmakers, ball carriers and finishers.
Whereas England had previously seemed behind the cutting edge of tactical developments prior to Jones’ appointment, the current squad are well adapted to the latest changes and trends in international rugby.
Boasting abrasive, ball carrying props with great hands, such as Kyle Sinckler, Ellis Genge, Mako Vunipola, two specialist opensides (Underhill and Curry) where once there was none, and the ability to play dual playmakers, with the presence of Ford, Farrell, Francis, Slade and Daly, England are well suited to fast, open rugby. Against Italy Jamie George illustrated the shift in philosophy that has occurred, exhibiting beautifully soft hands in attack and a tireless work ethic in defence.
Although controversial, Jones’ decision to leave Cipriani and Goode at home was because they do not fit the required profile to play the way he wants to play. This kind of clarity and certainty was sorely missing in 2015, when the Sam Burgess positional farce undermined Stuart Lancaster’s authority.
Perhaps the crucial factor is how settled the squad feels. Only Rassie Erasmus and Jones can really say, of the key contenders, that they know their best XV. The All Blacks are usually the world leaders in clarity of planning, yet Hansen’s experimental tendencies in the Rugby Championship suggested he is still looking for his settled combinations.
Jettisoning Devin Toner, the most capped player under his tenure, shows Joe Schmidt is also unsure. Wales, who seemed the most settled of all on the back of their Grand Slam victory, now face a selection dilemma at fly half after injury to Gareth Anscombe.
In contrast, England are all singing from the same hymn sheet. They seem focused and united. Furthermore, Jones is the only top level coach in the world with extensive knowledge of Japanese culture, pitches and society. The RFU must be hoping all that experience can deliver the goods and justify the biggest salary in international rugby.
“Arrogance is only bad when you lose,” Jones once said, “if you are winning and you are arrogant it is self-belief.”
Written by Joe Ronan