Observant Eddie Jones feels at home being England’s outsider

Observant Eddie Jones feels at home being England’s outsider

Eddie Jones has always felt like an outsider, and still does. “An Australian coaching in England rugby,” the England rugby head coach tells me in the latest episode of Life Lessons: From Sport and Beyond. “In Japan, half-Japanese – you’re an outsider.” Born in Tasmania to a Japanese-American mother and Australian father, as a boy he lived in La Perouse, a south-eastern Sydney suburb. There were around 30 children in his school class. “Twenty-six Anglo-Saxons, three aboriginal kids and myself.”

Jones’s mother would make him take presents whenever he visited someone else’s house, a Japanese custom he found uncomfortable. “Other people could never understand why that was done. So, you were different.”

Growing up feeling like an odd-man-out helped to shape Jones’s eventual career choices. “I wanted to be good at sport, because I wanted to be part of something.” Rugby was his ticket in. While he was not physically imposing – estimates of Jones’s height vary from 5ft 3in to a somewhat unlikely 5ft 8in – he had other skills, including a talent for sledging. “I would be quite fast with my lip, so there was a role for me to play in the team.” While Jones played against the British & Irish Lions for New South Wales B in 1989, he never made it into Australia’s first team. Some have suggested that was a chastening experience that left a mark and a point to prove.

As a coach, he has led teams to two Rugby World Cup finals, the first with Australia in 2003, when his side were pipped by Sir Clive Woodward’s England. “That defeat was easier to take than 2019 [when England lost against South Africa],” Jones admits, adding that, while he doesn’t like to lose, “if we played close to our best and got beaten that would have been easier to accept.”

As a leader, Jones prides himself on his observational skills, which he admits were borne of that feeling of not quite fitting in while growing up. That prompts the question, what has he observed about English culture that surprises him? “How complicated and complex it is, and I’m still trying to work it out,” he says. “England has a history as a colonial power, and now people are trying to dissociate themselves from that.

“There’s a bit of a small-island mentality. And I see that in Japan as well, where people don’t want to offend each other. They really want to get on and sometimes, that can make relationships quite difficult because it’s harder for people to be honest. And the thing that strikes me is how often English people say, ‘to be honest’ or ‘to be fair’. Why? What else would you be?

“There’s a desire to be polite and fit in with what’s going on in the moment. Until alcohol comes into it. Alcohol has a remarkable change on behaviour here, more so than even [with] Australians.”

Having spent time coaching and living in Australia, Japan, and England, Jones believes there is one Japanese habit that could enrich English culture. “One of the customs I really like in Japan – and my [Japanese] wife’s really big on it – is that wherever you go, you have got to leave that area better than it was. It’s such a harmonious and simple thing to do that’s better for society. If you go to a park, don’t leave it in worse condition. Leave it in a better condition.”

When Jones was first given the England job, there were some who said he would be a short‑term appointment; the sort of person to get quick results before burning out. Jones has been there nearly six years now, through ups and downs including the dismal fifth‑place finish in the Six Nations last season. His hardline methods have been controversial and at times divisive, and there has been high turnover rate among the coaching staff. But Jones insists he wants his players to know he cares about them, and that he’s trying to move them – and subsequently the team – to a better place, via an “arm around the shoulder” or “a couple of tough words”.

Jones has also been quick to dispense with the services of several stalwarts who have served him well throughout his English tenure. Several big names have been cast aside for the autumn internationals including the Vunipola brothers Billy and Mako, George Ford and Jamie George. A new generation featuring players such as Marcus Smith, Louis Lynagh and Sam Simmonds have been given the opportunity to spearhead Jones’s next crack at the World Cup.

When asked recently to nominate his top five career moments, Jones left one place clear for the 2023 World Cup final in France. He has confirmed he will stand down after that tournament, by which time he will have been the country’s longest‑serving head coach.

Jones insists his priority is to ensure England are better off than when he was brought in. “The main thing for me is how I leave England. I want to make sure I leave England always thinking they should be top three in the world. That will be a job well done.”

When I point out how that chimes in with the Japanese trait of seeking to leave a place better off that when you arrived, Jones pauses. “I’ve never actually thought about it like that. But that’s true.”