In the first part of an exclusive interview, Eddie Jones tells Graham Jenkins how he turned traditional rugby lightweights Japan into a Top 10-ranked team and the challenges he has faced on that journey.
“I think it is so important to always have an open mind and be looking for new things.”
Eddie Jones could be forgiven for taking things easy having criss-crossed the globe on a 20-year coaching journey that has included Rugby World Cup, Tri-Nations and Super Rugby success and pushed him to breaking point – but that just isn’t his way.
The former Australia, Brumbies, Reds and Saracens coach – and technical advisor to the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks – is as hungry as ever and gearing up for arguably the toughest challenges of his career.
Later this year he will guide a Japan side that he has reinvented into the World Cup after which he is expected to oversee the introduction of a Japanese side into an expanded Super Rugby competition in 2016 and also prepare the Brave Blossoms for an eagerly-anticipated home World Cup in 2019.
“I first coached in Japan in 1996 and I always had a desire to come back because of my heritage – my mother is Japanese,” said Jones, who took charge of the national side in 2012. “So it was always my intention to return and help them because I always felt they were a country underachieving and there was an opportunity to create a Japanese style of rugby.”
Jones immediately set about creating a new blueprint that he hoped would allow Japan to punch above their weight.
“Japanese players have got obvious physical disadvantages compared to other countries so it was a case of finding a way to play rugby effectively with smaller players,” he explained.
“The biggest challenge was finding a way to play rugby effectively with smaller players and secondly, we had to change their mindset. They were so used to losing and if they played any opponent that looked bigger than them then they would go into their shell straight away."
“It took about two or three years to get there through a lot of hard work, hard training but thankfully we’ve managed to change that considerably over the last period of time."
“It was a case of being proud of the way we play and if we play that way well then we have got as good a chance as anyone to beat other teams.”
Victories over the likes of Wales, Samoa and Italy helped to propel Japan to an all-time high of 9th in the World Rugby rankings last year but more importantly gave them something even more valuable.
“Now they are starting to believe that they can play,” enthused Jones. “They know you don’t have to be 6ft tall and 120kgs to win a game of rugby. What we’ve been able to show is that we can maximise our resources to a large degree."
“Again, because we are smaller side, you have got to be super fit, and once we have that we need to be really tactically flexible. When we play, we can’t just run the ball from everywhere because teams will understand that we want to play like that."
“When you start out like that you catch teams by surprise a little bit but teams work you out and now the challenge is to make sure we are tactically flexible, keep the base of our game and then be able to play a little bit at certain times to keep the opposition guessing.”
Jones is quick to admit he has not done this alone with particular praise reserved for former France hooker Marc Dal Maso who has brought steel and so much more to Japan’s previously vulnerable scrum.
“Japan has traditionally had a really poor scrum and the first year I took over we went to Romania and we beat them 31-26, but they scored their 26 points all from scrums and we couldn’t handle them at which point I knew we had to do something different,” recalled Jones.
“The French say ‘no scrum, no play’ and we needed that kind of mentality. I went over to France and met with three or four coaches including Marc, who had just finished with Mont-de-Marsan, and he was available and keen for a new challenge so we got him on board.”
And he soon made an impression. “He has such a passion for scrums, I have never seen anything like it,” said Jones. It’s serious, as far as he is concerned it is ‘no scrum, no life’ and he instilled that mentality in the players.
“His coaching style is quite unique,” explained Jones. “In Australia and New Zealand we have traditionally broken the scrum up into pieces but he does all his work virtually 8 on 8, and it’s all about the cohesion of the eight working together."
“He has done an incredible job. I don’t think I’ve seen an aspect of play, in all the coaching I have done, improve so rapidly as our scrum has under Marc.”
“Dal Maso’s willingness to broaden his coaching boundaries and his impact on the Japanese squad is a perfect example of the benefits available to both coach and player of such an approach.”
Jones himself credits his rugby travels with improving him as a coach and it is a philosophy he encourages others to adopt.
“When I think back and compare how I worked in Australia at the start of my coaching career to now and the knowledge I have, it is quite embarrassing,” he admitted. “From my experience with the Springboks and learning about how they think about the game, to coaching in England and now coaching in Japan, I have a much greater breadth of knowledge."
“My base philosophy has not changed but I think I am a lot more flexible in how I think about the game. If you have a look at the successful All Black coaches, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry, they have both had considerable stints in the northern hemisphere and will have surely learnt a lot."
“Everyone talks about the All Blacks being a fantastic side and they are but one of the key things they have improved over the last seven or eight years is their set piece. Not so long ago when Australia were beating them, they had a very wobbly lineout and now they have one of the best in the world and their scrum is just as consistent. I think that is the influence of those guys coaching in the northern hemisphere where the set piece is everything.”
Jones’ own travels continue with a recent visit to German football giants Bayern Munich and their highly-respected coach Pep Guardiola proving particularly invaluable.
“I’d read a little bit about him and I used to love watching his Barcelona sides play,” said Jones. “I’m not a massive soccer fan but I just loved their movement and it just reminded me of what we are trying to do with Japan, we’ve got to move the ball because we cant just crash the ball over the gain line, we’ve got to get over it by passing the ball."
“So I just wanted to understand his philosophy and how he coached movement, not so much about the actual game."
“Luckily through one of our sponsors we we able to arrange a meeting and he was very forthcoming and open. I watched one of his training sessions and it was so impressive to see the payers work that hard and the thing they worked hardest on most of all was their movement off the ball."
“Pep told me that when he went to Barcelona he did a bit of an apprenticeship with the B team and when he was interested in movement he said he looked at rugby and handball and the ways that they moved the ball. He didn’t have any precise knowledge about rugby but had certainly watched some games which I thought was quite interesting."
“I think it is so important again to have that wide mind and be looking for things. In rugby you are trying to create space or make space and there are other games where you are trying to do exactly the same thing and you can definitely learn from those games.”
Jones’ desire for running rugby can be traced back to his own playing career and those players who waste possession continue to infuriate him.
“I have always believed that you have got to use the ball and I came from the Manly club in Australia that was at the forefront of running rugby, and our instinct was that you always looks for the opportunity to run first, if it’s not on then you kick and I still believe that,” he said.
“It horrifies me when I watch rugby today and teams just kick the ball senselessly out of their own half and give it back to the opposition’s fullback on the 10m. You have got to make them work to get the possession of the ball back."
“That basic philosophy hasn’t changed but the way I coach rugby has changed considerably.”