‘In 2015, England were happy to be a good team. We want to be a great team’
Success starts with a single-minded focus on winning, says coach Eddie Jones
IT’S UP THERE with the great car industry turnarounds: Fiat under Sergio Marchionne, Carlos Tavares’ resurrection of PSA, and the England rugby union team’s revival guided by Eddie Jones. We meet Jones in the epicentre of English rugby, perched on green plastic beside the extraordinarily thick shagpile of the Twickenham grass, an intimate conversation under steep banks of seats more typically host to 82,000 braying supporters.
The 57-year-old coach took the job in 2015 after England become the first World Cup host nation to fail to qualify for the knockout stages. In the two years since, Jones has steered England to successive RBS 6 Nations titles, and whitewashed Australia 3-0 Down Under.
How, with largely the same group of players, has Jones extracted such a profound improvement in performance? ‘There are three areas. Mentally it was about changing the mindset. I think they were happy to be a good team and we want to be a great team. Physically we’ve got much fitter than they were. And tactically we wanted them to become England, not a copy of another country.’ For other country read New Zealand; England won’t obsess about side-toside attacking play, but on being hard to beat.
Jones thinks like a CEO and talks like a CEO: it’s all about the leadership and strategy to achieve a clear goal – winning the 2019 World Cup. He swats away my opening question about the upcoming autumn internationals against Argentina, Australia and Samoa with this statement of intent: ‘Everything we do is about preparing for the World Cup – it’s not about these games but the World Cup.’
If that’s the clear goal, what’s the strategy to achieve it? ‘Like [engineering] a car, you’ve got to build the foundations first. That’s your nd strategy, your social cohesion, team selection. Then you add the things to give you a competitive edge. For us, we want to be the best in the world in set-piece and defence, they’re the things we’re prioritising at the moment. Then you add the optional bits and pieces – the attack.’
Pundits including Sir Clive Woodward, the one man to lead England to World Cup glory, believe Jones hasn’t put a foot wrong in his team selections: trusting playmakers George Ford and Owen Farrell as a combination not an either/or, unleashing the young, tenacious ball-winner Maro Itoje, repositioning former captain Chris Robshaw to play to his strengths. But controversy raged over his selection of Dylan Hartley, a scrapper notorious for his suspensions, as England captain.
‘I was looking for someone bold,’ explains Jones. ‘We needed to say: “Right, we’re going to be great, and we’re going to work hard to be great.” We needed someone who was going to take a different route and that was Dylan.’
Jones is proud that his Australian outlook makes him blind to the English class system; he won’t let a player’s background influence selection. ‘I don’t assume, I assess players’ is his mantra. And that’s what gave him the confidence to anoint Hartley – a player omitted from the 2015 World Cup squad for disciplinary reasons – who has subsequently led England with distinction.
Hartley will call the on-field plays, but Jones is determined to condition every player’s thinking, to help with decision-making in a high-stakes match. ‘We train under more pressure than a game, by either training faster or [harder] physically, one or the other. You’ll never see a training session that looks good – it’s messy, it’s uncomfortable, it’s putting stress on the players.’
My final question tries to measure the progress, with just two years until the World Cup: if today’s England team was a car, which would it be? ‘Definitely a hybrid!’ says the coach. Typical Jones: an additional power source to boost performance. Anything to get an edge.