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FEATURE Eddie Jones: coaching genius or court jester?

Eddie Jones: coaching genius or court jester?
6 months ago

It could all have been so very, very different. If Japan had not scored in the fifth minute of overtime, in the dying embers of the pool game against the mighty Springboks at the 2015 World Cup, Eddie Jones never would have had the platform to extend his coaching lifetime at the highest level of the game. By such fine margins careers rise or fall.

Suddenly Jones was flavour of the month once more, and his genius for self-promotion hustled to centre stage. All comers, willing or unwilling, were barged out of the spotlight as Eddie’s Japan became the talk of the town.

“We haven’t come here just to have one splash in the pond,” he said. “When we came here we had two targets – to make the quarter-finals, and to be the team of the tournament. And we’ve not made a bad start.”

The fact Japan lost their very next game to Scotland decisively 45-10 and never made the knockout stages was brushed under the carpet in the media stampede to anoint Eddie the coaching genius, the man who had been scheming to beat the Boks for over three years. Jones himself could scarcely contain his glee at the exponential renewal of his profile as a rugby guru, quipping: “I can be like Clive Woodward and tell everyone what to do on television. Tell Sir Clive I want to be like him. That’s my dream.”

Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones was unveiled as Japan’s head coach at a press conference on Thursday (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Eight years later the wheel has come full circle, and Eddie Jones is back where he started, as the head coach of Japan. It has been a wild ride in between times. Jones led England to a World Cup final in 2019 and Australia through a disastrous campaign in the same competition four years later. After repeatedly denying media reports throughout the 2023 World Cup that he was heading back to his maternal homeland immediately after the tournament, despite a five-year deal worth AUD $4.5m with Rugby Australia, that is exactly what happened.

The saga left honourable Australian rugby men such as Wallaby centurion Stephen Moore squirming in their seats.

“It almost became untenable with both those guys [Jones and RA chairman Hamish McLennan],” he said. “It’s good to be out the other side of that.

“It was a pretty unfortunate time, the last 12 months for Australian rugby.

“We just need to have the best coach, and it’s no secret we haven’t been great at developing our own coaches.

It would be wise to cast a wide net and pick the absolute best [option] possible. If that’s Joe Schmidt that’s great, if that’s Ronan O’Gara that’s great, and if it’s Dan McKellar that’s great too. We need to go through that process, and we didn’t do that with Eddie. It probably came back to bite us.

Stephen Moore, former Wallaby captain

“So, you need to look outside. It would be wise to cast a wide net and pick the absolute best [option] possible.

“If that’s [New Zealander] Joe Schmidt that’s great, if that’s [Irishman] Ronan O’Gara that’s great, and if it’s [Australian] Dan McKellar that’s great too.

“We need to go through that process, and we didn’t do that with Eddie. It probably came back to bite us.”

Which version of Eddie Jones are we to believe? The genius who owns the highest winning percentage of any England coach in history at 73%, turning around a side which failed to emerge from the 2015 pool stage into a ‘picking machine’ which won 25 of its first 26 Tests on the way to three Six Nations titles, one Grand Slam and a World Cup final against South Africa? With England, Jones stayed to the very end, and a walk to the guillotine he knew was coming.


Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones had an ill-fated return to the Wallaby camp, dogged by poor results and controversy (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON/Getty Images)

Does the shambolic return of the prodigal son to Australia in 2023 carry more weight? Promising a Wallaby feast at the World Cup, despite a winless Rugby Championship and World Cup warm-up appetiser; registering only two wins [against Portugal and Georgia] in nine attempts and crashing out of his specialty tournament after catastrophic pool losses to Wales and Fiji. The catering service at that banquet quite simply never turned up.

Genius or court jester? Master-coach or pied piper? Both can be true. Eddie is an enigma, and can comfortably contain both in his psychological make-up. I frequently found myself on the opposite side to him in the early noughties, as advisor to Graham Henry on the 2001 British and Irish Lions tour of Australia when he was emerging as the Wallaby attacking mastermind, and as analyst for Wales for his last match in charge of the Wallabies in 2005. I did not meet the man in the flesh until December 2015 at England’s Pennyhill Park training base.

I dumped an imposing 75-page analysis of Scotland (England’s first opponents in the 2016 Six Nations) on the table and he brushed it aside. “Nah mate. I’ve got enough people doing analysis for me already.”

He was super-confident and I formed the impression he already knew the answers to every question he was supposed to be asking me. I dumped an imposing 75-page analysis of Scotland (England’s first opponents in the 2016 Six Nations) on the table and he brushed it aside. He wanted ‘nut’ not ‘shell’ – tactical appreciation and concentrated essences, not the fleshings-out: “Nah mate. I’ve got enough people doing analysis for me already.”

Six years later, he contacted me again out of the blue, to chew the fat at the darkest hour of his time with England. Two weeks later, he was given the boot by the RFU and another proposal fell by the wayside. That odd history of random rendezvous and sudden dispersals nonetheless left me with a definite impression: a fast-acting genius who could put plans together with outstanding speed and accuracy; but also, a breakneck intelligence which could just as easily cause burn-out and leave others in ruins around him.

There was the potential for very quick positive transformations in the short term, but a shrinking chance of stability in the long run. Is that not the real coaching story of Australia’s 2023 World Cup? A head guru who was too intent on ‘transforming’ in a year when ‘stabilising’ was required? Eddie could not help himself. He had to kick-start change, not at that start of new cycle when it was most appropriate, but at the culmination when the fruits of the previous four years were coming to maturity.

Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones won a Grand Slam and had a record 73% win record with England (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

At his best, he possessed a razor-sharp analytical attacking mind which smells out weakness, which sees the big picture and the detail within it at one and the same time. As his long-time confederate with England, Steve Borthwick commented: “It’s down to his analysis. When he was a player he never had his head out of the computer, and as a coach he never has it out. He knows lineouts better than anyone else I know. He can pick a weakness, an opportunity, and it’s just about drilling the players. He’s done that superbly [with England].”

It is also why an Eddie Jones team on the up always shows its premium wares right at the start of the game, and typically in the early phase of his reign. Remember Australia’s first scrum at the 2003 World Cup final versus England?


The Wallabies’ tactical architect had anticipated that England’s nominal full-back ( number 15 Josh Lewsey) would swap spots with number 14 Jason Robinson, with Lewsey playing in the line and ‘Robbo’ covering in the backfield from scrum. Jones immediately applied the solution via his on-field brain Stephen Larkham. The cross-kick to the far wing is inch-perfect and there is nothing 5ft 8ins of Robinson can do to stop 6ft 4ins Lote Tuqiri catching the ball and flopping over. England’s defence coach Phil Larder remembered Clive Woodward shooting him a filthy look in the coaching box: “How are we going to stop that, if they try it again?”

Wind the clock on another 15 years, to England first encounter with the All Black under Jones in 2018.


It’s impossible to appreciate the tactical subtlety of Eddie’s expert manipulation of the New Zealand backfield until you freeze-frame the ruck before the try.

All but two of the All Blacks defenders swing back to the wide side when they see the England backs, bar one, regrouping in that area. In fact, it is just a ruse to release England number 14 Chris Ashton down the right sideline untouched. Jones must have seen a reactive element in the Kiwi backfield he felt he could exploit, and he creates just the right move to expose it.

The 2019 World Cup semi-final against the same opponents in Yokohama probably represents Jones’ peak tactical achievement in his eight-year renaissance between 2015 and 2023. Once again the beginnings were crucial to the overall picture he wanted to paint. From the opening lineout on the halfway line, England made a statement of intent with ball in hand.



At least for his first four years in charge, Eddie’s England were unafraid to undertake that most un-English of strategies: attacking right from the start, with no risk-averse, preparatory ‘grinding-down’ up front; spreading the ball wide-wide in the space of three phases, inside the first minute of the match against the reigning world champions.

Eddie also had tight forwards such as Courtney Lawes and Kyle Sinckler offloading the ball, with his fly-half George Ford playing tight behind them.


A couple of phases later, the man who started it all with the first carry, centre Manu Tuilagi, finished it with the final plunge over the line. Six rucks and sixteen passes hitting two sidelines in a perfect minute of attacking rugby. It was Eddie Jones to a tee.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about mate,” was Jones’ retort after a reporter asked him about an alleged meeting-interview for the Japan gig during the World Cup. At the time, Jones was committed to the Wallabies on a five-year contract and in the middle of the biggest tournament in the sport.

Only 12 short months separated Jones’ sacking by the RFU, his welcome home to Australia, and his return to the place his latest coaching journey started, in the Land of the Rising Sun. He is probably the only coach who can accommodate such a bewildering sequence of arrivals and departures, sunrises and sunsets, working in a world of lightning speed, and sudden contradiction. Maybe the true destination was always Japan. If so, they are Brave Blossoms indeed. Who knows? The number of those who can keep up Eddie Jones are few and far between.


Bob Marler 179 days ago

Court Jester.

Jon 181 days ago

Smash and grab…on the moneybags by EJ…what’s Japanese for ‘how much you gonna pay me for a yr of work?’

d 182 days ago

Also fascinated by your interactions with him. Not looking at a 75 page report. I suppose it's a balance between backing yourself and taking what help is available

d 182 days ago

Thanks Nick. From an international rugby view, you would think they would only throw money at coaches with a very proven record? I'm slightly confused why Japan would be so keen? Like you say he has one brilliant win in 2015 but many recent years of underperforming? But possibly like you say Japan have a clearer long term plan of how to use him? Unlike Australia where he was just put in with no further thought.

The first clip makes me nostalgic about Larkham, not only could he pass perfectly but could kick accurately. Also as Woodward asked - why didn't we try that again in that game?!

john 182 days ago

I think now, Eddie always wanted to return to coaching Japan because his methods and philosophies aren’t questioned there and his wife wanted to retire there as they get on. They certainly know now they would not be welcome in Australia.

He decided to take Australia (and their fans - er hum) for a ride. Selfish tool. It may even have been revenge for not being selected as Wallaby because he was the runt of the litter and worse, being sacked unceremoniously as Wallaby coach the first time.

He is obviously one very bitter infinite grudge holding unpleasant individual who does know a bit about rugby.

I think in part the bitterness has clouded his mind in that he can no longer make rational decisions with respect to rugby. It’s just eaten away too many brain cells. He’s just clutching at his last straws. He knows he has a problem attracting quality assistant coaches. Being the most hated head coach in the world must be chipping away at his brain cells.

I’m right behind karma on this one. It won’t happen overnight but it will happen.

Ardy 182 days ago

Nick love the opening clip of Larkhams kick to Loti but the second one looked like a simple missed tackle by ??? and an offload. My doubts about Eddie’s genius is based on what I heard from inside the Wallabies camp after the 2003 RWC NZ game, the suggestion was that the senior players abandoned Eddie’s plan for the game and they decided to play more to McQueen’s playbook than Eddies.

Derek Murray 183 days ago

It was never going to fly with either of them but our best outcome for 2023 would have been Eddie in the same role he had for SA in 2007 and Rennie remaining as Head Coach.

We can only dream.

Good read on just what Eddie is (was once) capable of. Thanks Nick

Adrian 183 days ago

Thanks Nick

It's good to see some actual analysis of his coaching, and I'll come back to that.

I think that in Australia at least, the whole saga has damaged coaching and will continue to do so for a while.

Starting with the brutal, unethical and arrogant sacking of Rennie, and encompassing a multitude of aparent lies and contradictions it was just allowed to roll on. Brutally sacking coaches undermines the confidence of future coaches. Bullshitting to players undermines their future confidence and ability to relate to coaches. Telling lies to supporters turns them away, many to never return.

So, getting that out of the way, what about the coaching?

Certainly some stats suggest he was good at times, but I would argue that most top level coaches would have done as well or better in all situations. Certainly with the early 2000s Australian sides. People I know who spoke with players reported that the players thought it laughable that ultra structure would do anything other than annoy players like Larkham and Co, but they went along with it…by talking his talk. The Reds experiment was almost as comical as this year, but no one noticed.

Jones was and always has been saved by good players.

In the recent RWC having a “plan” that had ABSOLUTE structures such as kicking on the 5th phase whilst at the same time having “ad lib” playmaking bookended by the structures was farcical. The team had been stripped of players with any capacity to “ad lib”

Jones may think that his heavy structure orientation works, but every team he played in or coached that won had at least 3 players who could “ad lib”, but make it all seem like part of the plan.

This con job has been going on for 25 years

Harry 183 days ago

Hi, Nick. Valuable addition to the “canon” of how we can or should look at a complex man, burning with vanities but at his best, both charming and highly effective. Impulsive, rash at times, and brash always; but if kept in check by a board or head coach or strong assistant (Borthwick) full of worthy ideas. I think the pique of being tossed out, likely landing the Japan role before he even took the RA gig but needing to wait and the useful idiot Hamish on hand giving him an easy ride on an easy draw … backfired on him. Even then, he just needed strong assistants to convince him to pick and stick with QC-Nic-Ikitau-the right Arnold-Hoops, and stop making his team be tackle bags (150-250 attempts a game) + you’d have fancied OZ to get to a QF v ARG/ENG with 50/50 odds. But we know even if Icarus had lived to a ripe old age, he’d still be tempting the sun. Good piece: Eddie is both. Spot on.

Dean 183 days ago

Lets use the coaching ‘genius’ tag with a bit more caution Nick:

  1. Much is made of his role in 2007 WC springbok side. He was a technical adviser, so was one Rassie Erasmus
  2. 1 tri nations win
  3. Very mediocre coaching record for Australia. The coaches before him from 1982-2001 all had better records than him. The coaches after him also had better records from 2006-2013. Aus has had 10 coaches since 1982, his record is the 7th best out of 10
  4. His record for England included only 3 games against the AB and included no less than 8 against Italy(In six nations an almost guaranteed win). Also included 3 against the baabaas and US(2), Tonga(2), Japan (2), Georgia(1), Canada(1), Fiji(1)
  5. He as 3 six nations titles, but so does Clive Woodward and Joe Schmidt. Woodward also has a WC.
  6. Dont overplay the win against the all blacks in 2019 please. Winning one game doesn’t make you a tactical genius. After all at the time this was the 2 side in the world against the number 1 side. By the same logic then the win for Portugal vs. Fiji in the World cup was one of tactical genius. At the time Fiji was ranked 8th and Portugal 16th.
The media loves to talk about Eddie, its great news fodder. What he is good at is picking a schedule for his teams, but when he cant do that it all falls apart.

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