Eddie Jones: Leaving Australia for Japan the ‘right decision’, domestic rugby simply isn’t ‘sustainable’

James While
Japan's rugby national team head coach Eddie Jones.

Japan's rugby national team head coach Eddie Jones.

Ahead of England’s trip to Japan to take on the Brave Blossoms, Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with their coach, and former England supremo, the great Eddie Jones.

In a two-part interview, today we focus on Jones’ Japanese journey, with his views on Steve Borthwick and the forthcoming England match out on Planet Rugby next Monday.

Happy Eddie

Jones has enjoyed a roller coaster ride since leaving England Rugby in December 2022. After his departure from Twickenham, the garrulous yet brilliant coach spent a well-publicised nine months at the helm of the Wallabies before a premature exit from the 2023 Rugby World Cup caused him to fall on his sword as relations between himself and the already-under-pressure Rugby Australia reached their lowest ebb with claims of overspending and poor people management abounding.

Jones is a notoriously hard man to work with; demanding, focused, some might suggest self-centred, but none would ever dispute that once in a tracksuit on the training paddock Eddie is a rugby coaching genius.

However, Jones seems, for once, totally at calm with both rugby and himself. He arrived at our meeting early – relaxed, smiling, dapper, supportive and engaging – the qualities that Eddie at his happiest exudes constantly to his close rugby fraternity and ones that are often overshadowed by the hyperbolic and sometimes inaccurate portrayal of his personality by the popular press.

There’s little that Eddie Jones won’t do to help people improve within rugby and sport in general; his love of coaching is so great that ask him to oversee a touch footie game in a municipal park and his reply is likely to be ‘sure, mate’-  and he’s relishing his new opportunity to assist others with the country that started his Test coaching journey.

“I’m really happy here, mate. I made the right decision,” Jones told exclusively told Planet Rugby, smiling, after an evening’s bonding session in Tokyo with his national team.

“I’ve always been indebted to Japanese rugby for the chance it gave me initially to coach professionally and, as I’m getting towards the latter stages of my coaching, it’s a good place to come back, letting me give back the learnings I’ve experienced.

He continued: “Japan’s a unique country and it has advantages and disadvantages. Part of the disadvantages is that League One is massively funded some of the biggest multinational companies in the world so it has a fair deal of economic stability, but leading up to League One we have a fairly traditional system – like an American system where you play in high school, then you play four years of University, and then you go to a professional team.

“So we don’t have any high-level high-performance development system between the high school and League One and therefore younger players can miss out on some key development programmes – something which we’re trying to address in a bits and pieces way at the moment. But we’re getting there, and we’re understanding and identifying what needs to be done, which is key,” Jones explained.

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“League One is a bit of a contradiction in itself,” Jones observed.

“The level has definitely improved and the top four teams would be competitive in Super Rugby. Perhaps in the Northern Hemisphere, the set-piece might be a little bit strong for them, but they’re good teams. But the contradiction is that only 53% of the players are Japanese.

“So, to help the national team, we have to import those overseas players playing at a high level to increase the standard, but we still don’t have enough players playing on the island itself. And that’s one of the problems in a young professional league. Simply put we’ve got to build up the reservoir of our stock of nationally qualified players and that’s the process now,” Jones confirmed.

“We have to replace some of the icons of the game. Michael Leitch is the obvious example – he was one of the pioneers of the Japanese rugby revolution that happened in 2015 through to 2019, where Japan went from a team that was considered a bit of a joke team around the world to a legitimate top team at the 2019 World Cup. You know, in that period, Japan won seven of their eight pool games in the World Cup, which is a pretty good record. And, of course, Leitch was one of the key driving forces, and he had an uncanny ability to capture hearts and minds both on and off the pitch.

“We’re now bringing some young guys through and whilst he’s still around they can learn from Leitchy. That’s invaluable. We’ve got a number of players earmarked in terms of development – people like Takuma Motohashi, a really powerful back-row/lock prospect.”

Creating resilience

Creating a sustainable and resilient rugby product isn’t unique in Japan. All across the world, the sport survives largely by dint of the power of the Test Arena and World Cup to grab eyeballs. With rumours of a Qatari backed £800m bid to augment the Six Nations and Autumn Nations Series to be held in the Middle East country, it’s accurate to say rugby needs a deep shake-up like this to get resilience into its products.

“The simple truth is outside of the Top 14 and Rugby World Cup, rugby simply isn’t a sustainable product without outside investment,” Jones confirmed.

“However, rugby has become the most inclusive team sport in the world. It’s matured into a sport for all – we always go back to that cliché about it being the sport for all people and all body types and that’s very much the bedrock of its attraction. It has a uniquely intriguing balance of contest, contact and continuity and that’s what makes it so special.

“Look around the landscape of the game, and the interest in the women’s and wider inclusive game (Bingham Cup etc) is quite remarkable, and I am told that this part of the sport makes up 18% or so of participation right now, which is commendable.

“So we know that there’s interest and enthusiasm from all corners of society, but the simple truth is it’s not financially sustainable in its current form. Super Rugby is dying on its arse, the Premiership is a great product and has increased its eyeballs, but it still relies upon external funding, and we’re all too well aware of the issues of clubs going bust in 2022/23.

“The Japan Rugby League One is subsidised by big corporates,” Jones confirmed. “So, does extra money at this stage solve the problems?

“I don’t think it does; it just provides a band-aid until the wound appears again.”

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With parts of inclusive rugby, particularly the Union and Bingham Cups, stripped down to 40-minute formats in order to squeeze tournaments into a weekend, 20 minutes per half, is there room for a short-form version of the sport along the lines of the T20 cricket model? Jones believes that to survive sustainably, rugby needs to adapt and those formats suit the way modern sports watchers consume their products.

“Test rugby is fine, it always will be. The more pressing problem is the domestic game and in that regard, yep, this is quite analogous to cricket, where the 20/20 interest in a domestic league has revolutionised the financial model by providing a cash cow. I’m a purist – I love Test cricket – I don’t have that much interest in IPL or 20/20, but it keeps the entertainment and interest going – it’s a gateway into the pure form of the sport and I’m very interested to know how we could leverage that learning into a rugby context. People’s attention span is small these days and they want instant everything – that’s why T20 has thrived.

“If you look at every other sport in the world, everyone wants things quicker. The average time spent on website pages is basically nineteen seconds – Planet Rugby get loads more than that so I know you’re doing something right!

“But we’ve got such a crowded programme that I think if we were able to come up with the equivalent of a T20 in rugby, that was designed to bring a lot of money and more new spectators to the game, then freeing up three or four weeks in the year-round schedule will be well worth it.

“I was involved in the setting up of the 12s format – instant rugby that was easily digestible and quick – but still maintained the shape and ethos of the purist 15-man version. Perhaps that’s part of the solution? If you and I came back in 50 years time and sat and watched rugby over a pint or a glass of wine, I’m sure we’ll see an instant short-form version of the sport that can be better monetised – it might be Sevens, it may be 12s, but I’m confident it will happen, and I am very interested in exploring every avenue that can make the wider sport more sustainable and resilient,” enthused Jones.

England ahead

“Those are the big things. But for now, my focus is on what I can control and that starts with England in two weekends time. We have had three days of training now with the squad. Post-2023, there’s always a need to rebuild the team, no matter which country you coach. So I’m just trying to work out which players we keep from that previous World Cup, and then there’s some good young talent coming in that I need to assess, but we’ll be will be certainly putting our best foot forward.”

Part Two of our Jones exclusive will be published on Monday, previewing England’s Test match against the Brave Blossoms.

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