Return of the King: Eddie Jones

Words | Jonathan Lobban

The man regarded as international rugby royalty chats to M.J. Bale about the importance of togetherness, adaptability and self-reflection, and why the pursuit of victory, not victory itself, is where the joy exists.

Eddie Jones: Ah, well, it's nice to be given the honour to try to help Australian rugby. Like, it's obviously been a tough period and rugby in Australia is a cyclical sport. You know, we have good periods, and we have tough periods. And to try to play a small role in taking Australian rugby out of a tough period now is a real honour. So, I'm really looking forward to it.

MJB: In the press conference you spoke about a desire for the Wallabies to re-embrace very traditional Australian values such as ‘grit’ and you called on the ‘digger spirit’. What does the digger spirit mean to you and how do you coach it into the players?

EJ: I think it's almost this mythical spirit of Australia. You know, you think about Australia, that it was always seen as a lucky country. It was a land of opportunity. You came here… you were either born here or you came here to make a go of it, and part of that was doing it together. And sport is about doing it together. So, all we want to do is reemphasise that, that spirit of doing things together… don’t leave your mate behind, you know, keep going forward together.

MJB: In November 2021 you did an interview with ex-Brumbies prop and scrum guru Dan Palmer on his ‘Thoughts of a Human Mammal’ newsletter. Dan asked you, ‘What is your greatest achievement?’ You replied, ‘My greatest achievement is yet to come.’ Now, unless you’ve taken up some hobbies we don’t know about… maybe you want to become a bridge champion or you want to swim from Coogee to Manly, can we take that to mean your greatest achievement will be winning a World Cup as head coach?

EJ: Well, that’s something in the future. But, to me it’s… winning is certainly important. But the process of how you put together a team, how you get a group of players with all different ideas, all different ambitions, all different goals, to play together to the same beat, to be on the same page, is the ultimate achievement. And when they play [like] that, there’s no effort involved in it. That’s the achievement. Then obviously you win when you play like that.

MJB: In your book ‘My Life and Rugby’ you reminisced about how when you were a kid playing rugby with the Ella brothers at Matraville High your team played with a sense of freedom, and that this freedom gave you a lot of happiness. Rugby is such a detailed, structured game. There are so many things to coach into them [the players]. How do you instil that sense of freedom in players while still being able to stick tightly to a game plan?

EJ: It’s this balance that we have in life generally. Life has become a lot more individual and particularly Anglo-Saxons have become a lot more individually driven. But the joy most people get is being part of a team. That’s where people get most of their joy. So, it’s trying to get that right balance between, yes, individually do what you want to do, but do it as part of this framework as a team. And if you do it as part of a framework of a team the enjoyment is multiplied. And the fruits of success are multiplied. Because in rugby you can be the most brilliant individual player and not be rewarded. But you can be a brilliant individual player within a team and be massively rewarded.

MJB: In that Dan Palmer interview he also asked how you define success, and you said something like, ‘Success is transient, you are either moving towards it or away from it.’ Could you elaborate?

EJ: Well, I think the joy of success is not getting to the top of the mountain. The joy of success is moving towards the top of the mountain. And as soon as you get to the top of mountain, you're looking for another mountain. You know, the great mountaineers… there is a fantastic show on Netflix at the moment called 14 peaks, where I think the previous time someone climbed the 14 highest peaks in the world took them seven years. And this bloke did it in six months. Because he was always striving to do something better and that's success. Success is always striving to do something better and never been satisfied.

MJB: Your teams have always been known for their toughness, their uncompromising nature, tactically smart, well-disciplined and have tons of self-belief. Do you pick players that fit this mould, or do you teach it into them? Are these attributes coachable skills?

EJ: Most good players are highly coachable. [Former Wallaby] Drew Mitchell was in here before [at M.J. Bale’s Queen Street, Woollahra store]. All those guys, they all want to get better. So, as a coach if you can show them, you can give them the opportunity to get better, they want to improve. So, you're looking for good players. You're looking for players who want to be coachable, who want to be part of the team. And so, you can help them along that pathway. But at the end of the day, it's always you're relying on the player himself being self-driven.

MJB: Skill, talent, fitness, strength of mind, resilience, discipline… where do they run in order of importance for you?

EJ: Ah, look, it's a bit of a melting pot. You know, when you make a stew, and you throw in the meat and vegetables, what's more important, putting the meat or vegetables in first? They're all important. But generally, to go from a good player to a Test player, the main thing is being adaptable. Because the Test level things are much more unpredictable, and you've got to be able to adapt quickly. And I think that separates most levels of sports, the adaptability of a player.

MJ: Eddie, your international success is legendary. If you look back [at your coaching career] … you won Super Rugby with the Brumbies and then made the 2003 World Cup final as coach of the Wallabies. You were assistant coach of South Africa when they won the World Cup in 2007. In 2015 you masterminded ‘The Battle of Brighton,’ the greatest victory in Japanese rugby history, maybe in the whole of Japanese sport [Japan beat South Africa during the World Cup pool stages in England]. And then you beat the Kiwis as head coach of England in the 2019 semi-final. You took the England team so far, it was like 18 wins in a row, a rugby equal world record [for consecutive Test match victories]. So, you’ve had a lot of success. But what about the times when you haven’t had success, when you've had a setback and have had to start again? How do you start from the beginning again after facing adversity? Does it come down to self-belief? In your book you said, ‘I feel better as soon as I face the truth.’

EJ: Well, the first thing is always to reflect well, and reflecting well means that generally you gotta take responsibility. If things haven't gone well there's always a number of factors, but one of the primary factors is always your own contribution. So, if you can look at your own contribution, work out what you didn't do well and make sure you don't take that forward with you, you've got a chance of being successful. And then it's understanding that life… the cycle of life is about success and failure. Now, if we all kept winning, you'd never finish and we know there's a… for some reason, there's some sort of limit that makes you go back down. And you’ve got to go up again. So, it's understanding that failure is not terminal. All it is is just a period of time you’ve got to learn from and keep bouncing forward.

MJB: Okay, last question. Eddie, you have been part of a unique legacy in Australian rugby. You grew up with the Ella brothers and were part of the great Randwick rugby club dynasty. You were taught by Cyril Towers [proponent of Randwick’s pioneering ‘running rugby’ style]. I don't know who taught Cyril, whether it was Wally Meagher or maybe Arthur Hennessy, but that is a fine example of a legacy in Australian rugby that has been handed down over the generations. Eddie, what would you like your legacy to be for Australian rugby?

EJ: Well, I don’t think you can ever say what your legacy should be or what you would like it to be. All I can do is just keep contributing and keep giving. I think if you keep giving then, you know, if there's one kid out there that maybe was at Narrabri that you sign their shirt and he thinks, ‘I want to play rugby’ and, you know, maybe that kid was not going to play sport then then you left a legacy. It can be as small as that, but I think it's always for other people to judge.