‘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

CAR (UK) - - The Six Nations Tour - Words Phil Mc­Na­mara | Photography James Chea­dle

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.

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