Imagine, for a moment, the England football manager, Gareth Southgate, has just published a book about leadership. And within its pages has revealed that players in England are victims of “the disease of entitlement” and that a high-profile squad member has been sent away for acting lessons because he is too “inward looking” and unlikely to become the national captain.
Then imagine him really picking up the pace: how the media “love to hate” England, how he prefers to work with assistant coaches he doesn’t necessarily like, how a named young international lacks discipline and how he himself needs two steam baths on a matchday to enable him to calm down and think clearly. All this, crucially, while still being paid to do the top job and with a career-shaping World Cup around the corner. Let’s just say the feedback might be lively.
Eddie Jones, though, rarely appears too bothered what other people think. His latest book Leadership, published just in time for Christmas, can be relied upon to earn a few quid and ruffle feathers in roughly equal measure. Neither of those two outcomes has ever been an instinctive turn-off for the 61-year-old and, anyway, who can gainsay honesty? No one, if Eddie’s printed version of the truth really is gospel.
But has he gone too soon with this particular instructional tome? England finished fifth in last year’s Six Nations and, for all their autumnal promise, have yet to hoist a World Cup under their far-sighted guru. While many of the team building tips sprinkled through the book are shrewd and well argued and Jones’s relentless work ethic comes over loud and clear, his is still an unfinished symphony.
On the flip side, the essence of Eddie and his obsessive coaching nature shine through even more strongly than in his autobiography, written two years ago with the same high-calibre ghostwriter, Donald McRae. To declare an interest I have been fortunate to work alongside the latter at The Guardian for years. To say Eddie has been lucky to have such a brilliant practitioner fusing his thoughts and words is a Twickenham-sized understatement.
But therein lies the biggest of Jones’s many contradictions. On the one hand he generally loves nothing more – “The more you win in England, it seems, the more they dislike you” – than slagging off the media. On the other he is more than happy for one of (ye olde) Fleet Street’s finest to make him sound good. Then there are his hot and cold relationships with his own coaching staff. In the book he writes thoughtfully about mellowing with age and the importance of empathy and calm judgment. In real life, we read claims of him berating an assistant coach for wanting to spend a day off watching his son play cricket. Sometimes he seems trapped in a world of deliberate self-flagellation. “He understands I am uncomfortable when I start feeling comfortable,” reveals Jones at one point, referring to the unsparingly honest conversations he has with his long-time Australian confidante Neil Craig.
Which perhaps explains why his book manages to be simultaneously instructive, thought-provoking and slightly wince-inducing. Is it a good look, for example, to talk at length about how crucial it is to treat modern players with more individual sensitivity these days and then to publicly castigate Worcester’s Ollie Lawrence for the crime of not training as relentlessly as the great Beauden Barrett and attracting a few headlines as a possible successor to Manu Tuilagi? “He’s still a kid, only 21, but the way that some of the media raves about him you would think he’s already assured of becoming one of the best players in the world. He might do that, one day, but his attitude was not hungry or disciplined enough.”
There are echoes here of the recent Emma Raducanu comments that generated some blowback for Jones. The latter remains convinced that young players and gushing headlines are a toxic mix, as if public acclaim is a crime against humanity. “I sometimes go harder on the younger players because I want to … make them understand that they are entitled to nothing,” he writes, reflecting on the lessons of England’s uneasy 2021 Six Nations campaign. “England lost their way partly because of a creeping sense of entitlement which ate away at the core values and principles we had established. Complacency corrupts the soul of the team. When that happens, the core of the team cracks open and you have to start again.”
Always a possibility, of course, but perhaps there is also an argument that Jones’s blanket suspicion of youthful prodigies is increasingly dated and counterproductive? Is it truly enlightened leadership to cast a gifted playmaker such as Marcus Smith as a potentially spoiled kid or to invest in him unblinkingly? And is there any such creature, more generally, as a lazy modern-day England rugby international? Every single one, in my experience, is acutely conscious of the stiff competition and the need to work his or her socks off. They also play a sport in which half-heartedness, whether for club or country, is not an option. When Jones suggests he has found it tricky to pinpoint “a coherent English identity” it raises another question: is he too swift to stereotype certain types of people – players, colleagues, the media – before he trusts them as individuals?
Maybe none of this ultimately matters. No one has ever disputed Jones’s deep coaching knowledge. Being a stern, workaholic taskmaster is not illegal and, from England’s perspective, he is vastly experienced and tactically savvy. “We will play some lovely rugby in the next year or so,” he forecasts at one point. “But I know that by the time the World Cup begins in 2023, we will revert to more pragmatic rugby.” Whatever happens, he also knows the defining chapter of his rugby life is yet to be written.