Straight talking and scary training: the inside story of the ‘Eddie Show’
Reveals how combustible coach broke England to remould them in his image with one aim in mind – winning the World Cup
The view, Ian Ritchie had to admit, was breathtaking. It was Nov 14, 2015, and the Rugby Football Union’s then chief executive had travelled to Cape Town, making sure his arrival on a British Airways flight from Heathrow had gone unreported.
As he arrived at a faceless meeting room at Cape Town’s Table Bay Hotel, he glanced out of the window and was confronted by the looming presence of Table Mountain. Not that Ritchie had time for sightseeing: instead, the view was a reminder of the suitably monumental task that was facing him in South Africa – persuading Eddie Jones to take over as England’s head coach.
Forty-two days earlier, England had been humiliatingly dumped out of their own World Cup following defeats by Wales and Australia in the pool stage. The recriminations had been long and bitter, leading ultimately to Stuart Lancaster’s departure as coach. Only days earlier Jones, who had just started his new job as head coach of the Stormers – Cape Town’s Super Rugby franchise – had dismissed speculation linking him to the England post. By way of explanation, he observed: “I look out on to Table Mountain and think of how lucky I am to be here.”
Yet here was Ritchie, exhausted from his 6,000-mile journey and now anxiously waiting for Jones to arrive and discover if he could fulfil the task he had been set by the RFU board – convincing the Australian to swap the Cape for Twickenham.
Since England’s World Cup exit and Lancaster’s departure, Ritchie had conducted significant due diligence on potential successors and Jones had been the outstanding candidate. All the research confirmed that England needed a proven world-class coach, having endured successive World Cup disappointments under relatively inexperienced home-grown head coaches in Martin Johnson and Lancaster.
English enthusiasm for Jones was understandable. He was fresh from inspiring Japan to one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history, a stunning victory over South Africa in Brighton in the pool stages, and had previously taken Australia to a World Cup final in 2003, and helped South Africa win in 2007 as a consultant. Senior Springbok players had said since that his impact was critical to their success.
Yet it was his impact with Japan, who had finished their 2015 World Cup campaign with just one loss, against Scotland, that had convinced Ritchie he was the right man. He wanted a coach who could handle the unique pressures of a World Cup.
“Ian chose Eddie because, on paper, he ticked all the boxes for the criteria he had laid out,” an RFU insider said. “Who wasn’t impressed with how he coached Japan at the 2015 World Cup? There was no one else in the frame, Ian wanted Eddie and was determined to get him. The board said to go and get whoever you want but make sure you do it quickly and it is the right choice.”
Ritchie’s anxiety in Cape Town had been misplaced. Jones saw the role as an opportunity to make an impact, picking up a team on their knees. The swiftness of his decision
– the deal was effectively struck when Ritchie met Jones’s agent, Craig Livingstone, later that day – would be indicative of his single-minded approach over the next four years.
“It was a significant risk for the RFU to go for a foreign coach and one with a reputation for an abrasive approach,” a Twickenham insider said. “He was a hired gun and that is how he also views himself. He is not here to build relationships with the Premiership clubs or indulge in politicking with the RFU council or management board. His entire tenure has been dominated by a single aim: win the World Cup in Japan.”
It did not take long for Jones to make his mark. The three assistant coaches, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt, were let go and Steve Borthwick, who had been part of his management team with Japan, was controversially prised from Bristol, where he had just started a new job. Paul Gustard, regarded as one of the best young English coaches, was also recruited from Saracens. But the first real sign of his intention to do things on his own terms and in his own way came with the appointment of Dylan Hartley, a player with an infamous disciplinary record, as the public face of his squad as captain, replacing the clean-cut Chris Robshaw, whose leadership during the World Cup had come in for heavy criticism.
Robshaw survived the cull as a reinvented blindside flanker but Jones would come to draw heavily on Hartley’s leadership, even when there were calls from outside the camp for Jamie George, the Saracens hooker, to be given a start on the grounds of form.
“There were no issues,” one source said. “Ian’s view was Eddie picks the team and Eddie picks the captain. It was the first sign that he would do it his way and he did it before he had even moved to England full-time. This was going to be the Eddie Show.”
The players’ first taste of that “show” came at a meeting at their training base, the Pennyhill Park Hotel in Bagshot, Surrey, in January. The squad were desolate and desperate from their World Cup humiliation and craved the strong leadership that Jones brought. He offered the unique combination of “putting the fear of God” into them but also making them believe in themselves.
He had already held one-to-one meetings, during which his attention to detail and research into their backgrounds quickly became evident. Ben Youngs, for example, was deemed by Jones to be too unfit to be his scrum-half, a point he underlined in his own inimitable fashion.
“He threw a bag of sweets at me,” Youngs recalled. “I am actually a chocolate man, although I have never told him that! He then addressed the whole squad and just said, ‘Boys, we have got an opportunity to win the World Cup in 2019. I have come here because I have got a squad and I have seen this team.’ I remember being in awe of what he was saying. I thought, ‘I believe in what he is saying. I want to be part of this.’”
The revolution was swift. Jones rises at 5am most days and is notorious for sending emails to his coaches as soon as he is up
– and for expecting a quick response. Players were subjected to similar demands.
“The whole way we trained, how we went after things, our identity and how we wanted to play the game all changed,” Youngs said. “Everyone bought into it. English culture tends to have people thinking, ‘Hopefully it will be good and I hope we are going to perform.’ The Australian culture is, ‘We are going to be great and this is how we are going to do it. We will perform.’ It is out there.”
Jones’s directness manifested itself in practice, too. Short, intense sessions were introduced to make sure the players were always training under duress aerobically, routines changed at short notice and soapy balls deployed to make handling more difficult. Internally he constantly talks about making sure the players are “desperate”.
“I remember one of the first sessions that we did and the lads kept pulling the ball out of the back,” Youngs said. “The whistle blew and Eddie said, ‘Are we playing rugby league? Do we like rugby league over here?’ The lads were just looking at each other. He
Ready for action: Eddie Jones supervises training