Freddie Burns: Eddie Jones ‘still has that aura’ in Japan, England have an ‘unbelievable opportunity’ against the All Blacks

Alex Spink
Japan head coach Eddie Jones and former England fly-half Freddie Burns.

Planet Rugby spoke exclusively with Freddie Burns about Eddie Jones' influence in Japan and the upcoming series against the All Blacks.

Freddie Burns has revealed the hold Eddie Jones still has on Japanese rugby – and why he was advised by Andy Farrell to come off social media when England last toured New Zealand.

Burns is in a unique position to assess the challenge facing the Red Rose over the coming weeks. He plays his club rugby in Japan and was England fly-half when they almost beat the All Blacks in their own backyard a decade ago.

On Saturday morning Steve Borthwick’s team start a three-Test tour against a Japan team coached by Jones at the National Stadium, the main venue for the behind-closed-doors Tokyo Olympics.

The Brave Blossoms have never beaten England and Borthwick’s men, seven places higher in the world rankings, are odds-on to make a winning start to a trip which moves on to New Zealand for two Tests.

Eddie Jones’ influence

But Burns warns that Jones’ return to the team he inspired to the greatest upset in rugby history, the 2015 World Cup defeat of South Africa, has Japan galvanised once more.

“Eddie visited our team a couple of months ago,” says the Toyota Shokki Shuttles star. “I saw with my own eyes he’s definitely got that sort of respect and fear factor.

“We’re in division two and the likelihood of our boys playing for Japan is pretty slim. Yet as soon as the boys saw him about 10 balls went down.

“Speaking to him it was clear he is really excited. And I know the Japanese have real respect for him. He’ll be a huge factor this weekend.

“He’s already influenced the kick-off, I hear, pushing for a midday start in the boiling heat. England wanted 7pm so they met in the middle. Eddie will be happy with 2.50pm.”

This is Jones’ first match back in charge since being sacked by England and leaving the top job in Australia after their disastrous and historically short World Cup campaign.

“No question, in Japan he still has that aura,” Burns adds. “No question, either, for me that his style suits Japanese rugby.

“The Japanese are very diligent, even in their everyday work life. One thing I’ve learned in their rugby is you say and they’ll do.

“The Japanese boys aren’t the type to argue back, to complain or sap away. They’re far more likely to get their heads down and make it work. In that sense Eddie is well suited.”

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Giving England a run for their money

Burns continues: “The last World Cup was a bit disappointing for them, as we expect big things from Japan after 2015 and then beating Ireland and Scotland in 2019.

“I think they’ll definitely give England a run for their money. Young English squad, albeit a strong team, heat factor, fatigue after a long season whereas the Japanese boys have played a lot fewer games. Combine all that and it could be a factor.”

Win or lose England fly on to a part of New Zealand Burns knows well having played the 2023 season for the Highlanders in Dunedin, the venue for the first Test on July 6.

Rewind 10 years and Burns, in and out of form at Gloucester, was selected by England for what remains their most recent visit to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Selection was a dog’s dinner due to the close proximity of the Premiership Final which meant head coach Stuart Lancaster could involve no players from finalists Saracens and Northampton until the second of three Tests.

So it was that Burns was handed the keys to number 10, a hospital pass if ever there was one given the opposition were the world champions and the venue was Eden Park where the All Blacks last lost a Test match in 1994.

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A chance against the All Blacks

It led to an extraordinary conversation on the flight south, according to Burns.

“I was having a terrible season, if I’m honest,” he recalls. “I remember Stuart Lancaster just backing me. I remember too Andy Farrell speaking to me on the plane over.

“He said to me ‘Why don’t you call your agent, give him your Twitter password, and you just stay off it for the three and a half weeks while we’re down there’.

“They sort of knew I’d been playing that poorly for Gloucester and that when they named a team with me in it, I was probably going to get quite a bit of stick and a lot of questions.”

What transpired came close to being filed under ‘greatest shocks in rugby’ as Burns kicked England into a 9-3 lead and added a fourth penalty to restore their advantage inside the final quarter.

Aaron Cruden kicked New Zealand in front with his fifth penalty on 70 minutes only for replacement Danny Cipriani to level things up moments later.

England were three minutes from a famous result when the All Blacks were awarded a penalty, tapped quickly and cut deep into English territory for Conrad Smith to break their hearts and clinch a 20-15 win.

“We thought they would go for the posts, they surprised us,” says Burns.

“I made my England debut off the bench in the 2012 Twickenham win over New Zealand, but it is that game in Auckland I always look back on and think ‘what if?’

“With this tour in mind, however, there are definite positives England can take. This is a young group, as we were in 2014, but with youth comes fearlessness.

“The team that went out at Eden Park that day was fearless because no-one gave us a chance. We took the game to them and ended up almost walking away with a result.

“I definitely think England will see the opportunity that’s there. New-look New Zealand team, new coaches, new combinations, new players.

“No [Sam] Whitelock, no [Brodie] Retallick, no [Aaron] Smith, no [Richie] Mo’unga… the list goes on.

“Without doubt there’s a changing of the guard and England have to see that as an unbelievable opportunity.”

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