Lunch with the FT: Eddie Jones

Over steak and salad, rugby’s coach of the moment talks about man-management, wooing Japanese fans and Boris Johnson’s lack of a plan

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© James Ferguson

On a searing Sunday morning in Roppongi, Tokyo’s nightlife hub, a procession of elegant brunchers quickly fills the tables of the Oak Door. Before the global financial crisis, this legendary steak bar was a stalking ground of foreign bankers and their courtiers and hangers-on. Located at the foot of the Goldman Sachs and Barclays offices, on weekdays it glowers with masculinity, dark wood tables and heavy copper side-dishes. But on weekends, the Oak Door flaunts its glamorous side. Shopping bags from Escada and Ferragamo are parked under the tables, the first salvos of gossip have been loosed and the offer of free-flow champagne is being playfully tested.

Eddie Jones, the Australian architect of arguably the greatest upset in the history of rugby — Japan’s last-minute triumph over one of the titans of the game, South Africa, at last year’s World Cup — and now England’s newish and already transformative head coach, bustles in. Despite being a hero to millions of Japanese, he turns no heads at all; his arrival doubles the male customer count in the cavernous main restaurant. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a grin that would require a crowbar to remove.

The 56-year-old, who is half-Japanese and spent large parts of his career in Japan, is fresh from a triumphant tour of Australia. It has cemented his status not just within the game, but also as a new mould of manager that everyone — in sport and beyond — would like to have. His record in leading the national teams of four different countries is the envy of every coach. It is all the more remarkable because, in each case, he has imposed lasting cultural change on his charges. I am having lunch, then, with Leadership 3.0.

This is why — despite his previously claiming that he “knows nothing about banking” — Goldman has him on its Japan advisory board. Yes, the bank’s Japan head, Masanori Mochida, happens to be a rugby nut. But in a globalised workplace, what executive doesn’t want to know how Jones fashioned a unified world-class force out of a Japan squad where nearly half the players were born outside Japan?

Now, after transforming a lacklustre, defeated England team into seemingly indomitable champions in the space of a few months, the premium on Jones’s secret sauce could barely be higher. He settles into an airy booth towards the back of the restaurant, a thin curtain separating us from a group that has been noisily discussing a colleague’s decision to start wearing a wig. Jones makes clear that beyond a few errands he has to run for his Japanese-American mother, he is having a cracking weekend in Tokyo.

The previous day he watched a local team he used to run — the Sunwolves — play to a 20,000-strong crowd of newly minted Japanese rugby fans he believes he helped create. Two days before that, he turned his hand to investment banking (“those guys are in a different, different world”), discharging his duties at Goldman Sachs by talking to his audience about leadership and without causing calamity in financial markets. He came close, though: during dinner, one of Japan’s biggest industrialists asked Jones for advice on the future direction of the yen. Jones told him it would appreciate.

“It’s a bit of fun. They ask me how to get more out of their staff. They want to hear about how cut-throat sport is, and how to get bankers to behave like that. I enjoy it,” says Jones, as a waitress appears wearing the Oak Door’s crazily chequered livery. “They listen to me. Whether they act on it is something else,” he finishes, before cheerfully shunning my offer of a beer and ordering a huge glass of iced green tea instead.

The real joy, though, comes from his own success on the field. Like a teenager who has finally bested his dad at arm-wrestling, Jones is flush from England’s annihilation of his home country during last month’s three-match series. Outraged Australian pundits have, not for the first time in his career, attempted to rile him with the word “traitor”. Pub banter is less delicate. How can the guy who was Australia’s coach when they lost the 2003 World Cup final to England in the final kick of the game now be sharing his magic with the hated Poms?

Jones considers the charge before dismissing it, emitting a sound from his throat like a low-powered masonry drill. “They moved on, and I moved on,” he says. “I took the England job because I can see an opportunity to put a country that should always be in the top three in the top one.”

The full-beam grin stays in place through the initial chatter, his first gulp from the green tea and the Japanese oshibori (towel) hand-mopping. It remains intact through the series of questions he asks to take my measure: on my background and, more obscurely, whether my Japanese wife is happy in Japan. It’s still there five minutes later, when the waitress arrives and the discussion has already darted between racism in Australia (“bad problem, mate”), Brexit (“bit chaotic, mate”) and the art of reducing a 20-stone tighthead prop to tears (“they’re big kids, mate”).

The smile vanishes only once — but definitively — when we alight on Boris Johnson’s abrupt self-removal as contender for the post of British prime minister a couple of days earlier. In answer to Jones’s “What the hell happened there?” I give him my best account of post-referendum strategies. His expression warps through disbelief to disgust. “So Johnson didn’t have a plan. You’re saying he wasn’t prepared. He hadn’t done any preparation?” Jones says, homing in on what, for him, is the ugliest crime in management.

He has not opened the menu. The Oak Door is a short walk from Jones’s apartment. “I’ve been here quite a few times and it’s not bad,” he says, ordering buttered scallops and a Cobb salad with no bacon. The waitress misses that last part. “Bacon nashi,” he says, using what he calls “rough, rugby Japanese”. His wife, a linguist and a Japanese national, has banned him from speaking this pidgin language at home, fearing that it will pollute their daughter’s Japanese and, worse, confuse the dog.


It is not hard to see where all the grinning comes from. After two decades of foisting his minutely planned model of coaching on an often reluctant game, the triumphs of the past 10 months have turned this former school teacher into the embodiment of vindication.

Like most sportsmen, Jones is keen to play down the plaudits, stressing the cyclical nature of success in sport. “Talk to the bankers. That’s what I find so interesting about doing stuff with them. The ones who have been in the game for 30 years, they’ve seen it all, and they know it’s going to go like this,” he says, his hand forming a sine-wave of boom and bust. “So you have to ride those troughs and know that the cycle always comes out the other side.”

I point out that while the team may come out the other side, the coach often doesn’t. How can Jones, whose planning is such a long-term affair, live with the statistically minuscule sample of match results on which the decision to sack a manager is often based? “It’s not right, but it’s how it is and it will never change. That’s why I never worry too much about the contract. I want to get paid what I’m worth but I’m never worried about the length or the out-clause,” he says.

But is it critical for him and the team to imagine himself coaching England for the full length of his contract — a four-year deal that would see him lead the team through the 2019 World Cup in Japan? The glottal masonry drill begins to rev, then fades. “If you are not winning, you’re going to go, and if you win, they keep you. That’s the simplicity.”

For now, Jones really seems to be having it all his way. Last September, as head coach of Japan’s “Brave Blossoms” national squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, he cajoled a team of spirited underdogs to victory over South Africa’s Springboks in Brighton. It was a powerful reminder, he says, of why it is so “fascinating and fantastic” that the 2019 World Cup is to be held in the historically non-rugby nation of Japan.

“Unbelievable. Look at what’s happened in Japan after the [2015] World Cup. We’ve changed people’s lives here. We’ve changed the landscape,” he says, calmly pillaging an earlier assertion that sport was not fundamentally important to the world. “At that Sunwolves game yesterday, there were 20,000 people. Twelve months ago, if you’d said that, they would have told you that you were crazy.”

Two months after Brighton, with the Japan win as his new calling card, Jones took over from Stuart Lancaster as head coach of the England team that had crashed out in the opening round of the same World Cup — the first time that fate had ever befallen the hosts of the tournament. Jones had watched that resounding demise without an inkling that he would soon be called upon to perform a resurrection, though he admits: “I couldn’t help thinking what I would do to turn that team around.”

He made only modest alterations to the England XV — changes so small that when he got the same team to beat all comers in the 2016 Six Nations Championship, it served to highlight Lancaster’s failure even further. More critically, England have risen from fourth to second in the world rankings, putting him precisely where he has always wanted to be: in a long, attritional campaign to unseat the New Zealand All Blacks.

The All Blacks, much like the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest, have a magnificence that seems etched on to the very surface of Planet Earth. Jones’s conceit is that he can manage England into erasing that. His investment in the project is already clear. Even in an era of globalised sport, it is striking how fluidly England’s first non-English coach refers to England as “we” over lunch. I wonder aloud if this is a deftly wrought mind-game. “Every time you open your mouth, it’s a chance to get a message to your team, and a message to the opposition. Otherwise why talk?” he says.

The destruction of the All Blacks, he affirms, will require both a mental and physical conversion for England. Physically, he thinks that England will now lead a convergence between the styles of northern and southern hemisphere countries. “We are not going to copy what the southern hemisphere does, though. We’ll do it in our own way. Our own English way. That started with what we just did in Australia.”

As for the psychological side, Jones says he is concentrating on finding “that bit of the psyche that tells you those things you have to do to make a national team feel good”. With Japan, it was getting them into a rhythm on the pitch like a nine-to-five working day. For England . . . 

The scallops arrive and the sizzling gives him cover to avoid an answer.

Is hunger, I ask, transmittable between coach and player? “One hundred per cent. One hundred per cent. That’s why I loved teaching, and that’s why teachers make such good coaches. You’re reading people. Messaging every one of them differently. Some need their heads massaging. Some need a cup of coffee. With England now, that’s what we have to do. There’s a science to the plan. Then there is the art. The art is all about relationships.”

Those who’ve been on the wrong end of Jones’s savage, tear-inducing criticism of players may beg to differ. During his time coaching the Blossoms, players would reportedly dive behind furniture to escape chastisement. “When I was younger I could be quite hard on players. But I’ve learned with age that you can do it in other ways, and having a daughter [now 23] means I understand younger people better. I get it now. Sometimes you give them an old-fashioned, hair-dryer-type approach. Now, much more [I sit down and] get him to understand what he needs to do on his own.”

Jones’s salad arrives, but he eyes my steak sandwich with some envy. I offer him half, but he turns it down, slathering his lettuce with olive oil. As it disappears beneath a sewing-machine assault of fork pricks, so does his grin. He has concerns about the future of rugby union. It is in danger of following cricket into a TV-led revolution of the sort engineered by Australian media magnate Kerry Packer in the late 1970s. The same ingredients — particularly uneven rewards between big, wealthy teams and their smaller rivals — are all in place. “I think that at some stage the game is going to have a really good look at itself and make sure it doesn’t get taken over by a television guy. ’Cause it could happen.” I ask if Jones would resist such a move and a new noise — more like a dentist’s drill — suggests some uncertainty.

“I wouldn’t resist but I think you are much better off having the game in the hands of people who have the game at heart rather than television people. The administrators of the sport should be doing everything they can to make the game as healthy as possible.”

This prompts him to comment on the dismal performance of England’s football team at Euro 2016. “The fundamental problem for England soccer for me is that you have a team that doesn’t have a high enough priority in the England soccer hierarchy, where the most prestigious thing is to play in the English Premier League. There is something fundamentally wrong there and I’d hate to see a situation in rugby where World Cups and test matches aren’t the pinnacle of the sport.”

A plate of fruit arrives, along with a cheese board that he ordered on my behalf and intends to pick from. I remind him of a famous boast from his younger days that he could go into any organisation and see 50 things that were wrong. How does Goldman Sachs stand up to that scrutiny?

With the volume in the Oak Door now at peak brunch, the Jones masonry drill makes a final assault on the conversation. For a second, the balance of risk hangs between a smart retort and losing a gig he really likes. “I don’t know enough about that,” he decides.

We end lunch with a protracted analysis of the outsider, starting with his mother’s internment (as a nisei) in a US camp during the second world war and his wife’s initial reluctance to return to a Japan she left as a student. Sporting talent and a sharp tongue, he says, opened the doors to Australian culture when he was growing up, but his career as a coach in Japan provided constant reminders of what it means to be different. His daughter, a sports management graduate now working for the Australian Rugby Union and getting “a bit of stick” for her father’s move to England, may now face something similar. “You can see the issue. She’s 75 per cent Japanese, but 100 per cent Australian,” he says.

“But Japan. Japan. Getting the culture right. Getting people right. It’s a really hard place. If you can do well here, you can do well anywhere,” he concludes, rising from the table and heading off to buy his mother some rice crackers.

Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent

Illustration by James Ferguson

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