Funny and clever, Jones uses every trick in the book to gain an edge
Coach challenges All Blacks’ aura by claiming all the pressure will be on them, while pushing his own players to upset the odds on Saturday
Eddie Jones missed his calling as a boxing promoter. There we were meandering through a routine semi-final build-up when bam! – the energy level soared and the headlines started yelping. In the fight trade, a shout would have made everyone sit up: “It’s showtime.”
One difference: in boxing, the ramping up of hostility and conspiracy shifts tickets and pay-per-view sales. Hype helps everyone get paid. But there was no financial motive for what Jones did at England’s team hotel next to Disneyland Tokyo. His name appeared unexpectedly on England’s news conference list and what followed was as entertaining as anything the local Disney franchise could dream up.
A few facts need laying out. New Zealand, England’s semi-final opponents, have won 18 straight World Cup fixtures. They have not lost at the tournament since 2007. They have a 100 per cent record against England in World Cups and have won 15 of the past 16 Tests between the two. Before Japan 2019 started, the All Blacks were posting a 77.2 per cent win ratio in international rugby.
However much England improved against Australia on Saturday – and they really were excellent in places – they confront a mountain of discouraging stats, none of which makes Saturday’s game in Yokohama a doomed mission.
The problem with playing the All Blacks is one of perception. Fearful thoughts stalk the brain. “We could win,” the conscious mind says. But the All Blacks “probably will win”, the subconscious interjects.
It was this sense of predestiny Jones was probably attacking with his two-pronged disruption strategy. Tactic No1 was to allege spying from an apartment block on England training. This led him into an admission that he too used to spy on opponents until he stopped in 2001. He soon wrenched the conversation back to the here and now, and his suspicion that espionage was being conducted by a person or persons unknown. He was too clever to make a direct allegation against any team, but the effect was to suggest England were up against dark forces and therefore might be worthy of the support of those who root for underdogs.
Jones is right to say New Zealand are the second favourite team of Japanese rugby fans. Even as the Brave Blossoms were knocking out Scotland, the merchandise stalls outside Yokohama Stadium were a mix of Japan and All Blacks scarves and jerseys. “The Japanese love all that. The Samurais are mystical characters in Japanese history and it’s the same for the All Blacks,” Jones said. “Japanese love the haka and all that goes around that, that’s their second team.”
Nobody could seriously think enlisting local empathy would help England’s players in the maelstrom of a World Cup semi-final. But nor does Jones want New Zealand to step out on Saturday as the darling of all neutrals. He knows – as everyone does – that New Zealand rugby is a menacing corporate machine as well as being the home of expressive play. So part of his motivation is to strip it down to its essence of commercial and political power. He wants to demystify it. It may make no difference to the result, but Jones knows he could not spend the whole week allowing the All Black
“aura” to go unchallenged.
He may make no dent in that mystique, but he can reinforce a message to his players, just as Sir Clive Woodward used to insist on his team calling them New Zealand, not the All Blacks. He wants England to believe in themselves as potential World Cup winners and not be drawn into All Black predestiny.
Any mark he can leave on the New Zealand edifice is worth leaving, he seems to be saying. Hence his frontal assault around “pressure”, which was almost comical and certainly entertaining. “I don’t think they are vulnerable, but pressure is a real thing,” Jones said. “The busiest bloke in Tokyo this week will be Gilbert Enoka, the mental skills coach [Enoka’s title is manager – leadership]. They have to deal with all this pressure of winning the World Cup three times and it’s potentially the last game for their greatest coach and their greatest captain, and they will be thinking about those things. Those thoughts go through your head. It is always harder to defend a World Cup and they will be thinking about that and therefore there’s pressure.” New Zealand have heard this a thousand times. Their 455 wins in 588 Tests point to a talent for transcending provocation and mischief. Jones knows this; he is in the final stages of his grand design as England coach, so the memo was really to his own players. He was telling them to believe in the reality of All Black mortality and back themselves to upset the odds.
Ever since the draw was made he knew this match was coming: “We’ve prepared for this game for 2½ years. I can remember being in Kyoto 2½ years ago and quickly you could do the mathematics – even an Australian could do the mathematics – that we were going to play New Zealand in a semi-final. Progressively we’ve built a game that we think we can take New Zealand with.” There is the nub: this is a coach talking to his own squad, not the All Blacks, who will be amused but not unsettled.
Up for it: Eddie Jones knows what lies ahead for England against the All Blacks