Saturday 18 January 2020

Alan Quinlan: Special One Schmidt needs to silence Eddie Jones - the poor man's Jose Mourinho

Schmidt and Jones are both driven by a desire to win but the outspoken England supremo has also proved himself to be a very smart coach

Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt
Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It's just over a year ago - in the immediate aftermath of the insults he directed at Johnny Sexton - since Eddie Jones was dubbed a "poor man's Jose Mourinho".

The person dishing out the insult? Your very own columnist. Yet irrespective of the fact that England's winning streak has stretched from three games to 18 matches over the course of the subsequent 13 months, I stand by what I wrote.


I'm all in favour of people speaking their mind and stepping away from the corporate, carefully-rehearsed rhetoric that you hear from so many sportspeople in today's world.

So praise be to Eddie Jones for not boring people to death with words like "process", "embracing challenges" or "goal-setting".

Instead, he has accused the Italians of "killing rugby" in a deliberate attempt to dictate the narrative after his side's mediocre display against Conor O'Shea's team at Twickenham last month. Ahead of their three Tests against Australia, he berated his fellow countrymen's scrum, as well as their coach, Michael Cheika.

By so doing, he was voluntarily making himself a hostage to fortune. Yet there is a confidence there with Eddie Jones, both in the talented players he has at his disposal, and also in the belief he has in his own coaching credentials. Does he care if his words backfire and the hunter becomes the hunted? Not a bit.

He's comfortable in his own skin, so much so that he'll say what he thinks, conscious that by doing so, his own players will know not to be complacent, and that his opponents may lose focus and go out of their way to prove him wrong.

"Ireland will kick the leather off the ball," Jones said this week, probably in the hope that at some stage, one of Ireland's back three will receive the ball in their own 22, and attempt to counter-attack from deep, risking a turnover. If that scenario unfolds - and England get a score from it - then the pre-match chat will be worthwhile.

Yes, "the poor man's Mourinho" has grown on me over the last year. If nothing else, he is entertaining.

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Plus he is a remarkably good coach, having reinvented himself after the miserable time he had at Saracens in 2009 - a period he described as "his worst time in rugby". If that was the case back then, the last couple of years have been the best.

First came the 2015 World Cup, when his achievements in guiding Japan to victories over South Africa, USA and Samoa stand apart as one of the greatest rugby stories of all time, yet he has followed that up by doing something just as notable, namely re-establishing both himself and England.

It really is remarkable to think that this England squad is largely made up of the same players that lacked leadership, and a killer's instinct, at the 2015 World Cup, when they failed to get out of their pool after losing to Wales and Australia. Since then they haven't lost to anyone, grabbing last year's Grand Slam, and then, last week, their second successive Six Nations.

By equalling New Zealand's world record 18-game winning streak, they've also put themselves in the history books, yet significantly Jones has refrained from showering his players with praise, choosing instead to challenge them to go one step further. "We can reach a higher level," he said.

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Impressively, from a personal perspective, he also stepped onto a higher level this week by displaying a rare show of humility when he unreservedly credited Stuart Lancaster for the groundwork he put in to help England establish themselves as the second best team on the planet.

"That is a side to Eddie that the public don't see," a mutual friend said to me this week. "During international weeks, he puts on his game-face. He's ruthless. Away from the big stage, though, he is a different person. He's kinder. But the way he operates on match week is like a boxer before a big fight. His ploy is to psyche out an opposing coach, or player. Make no mistake, every word he says publicly is deliberate. There is an agenda there."

That agenda is a winning one. The pre-match noise is designed to apply extra pressure on himself.

He likes it that way. It motivates him. And it also motivates his team.

Think about the way he has gone about re-establishing their position as the best in Europe. There have been smart decisions - an awareness that George Ford and Owen Farrell could be accommodated in the one team, Ford being the playmaker whose speed of pass allows Elliot Daly, Mike Brown, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson to show off their speed of foot, while Farrell's mental and physical strength is crucial both in defence and attack.

Owen Farrell and George Ford will be crucial to England’s hopes of winning the Grand Slam today. Photo: Getty
Owen Farrell and George Ford will be crucial to England’s hopes of winning the Grand Slam today. Photo: Getty

Ruthlessness There's a ruthlessness, too. Jonathan Joseph was dumped from the squad for the Italian match but returned to get a hat-trick a fortnight later. Nowell and Nathan Hughes have both played well - but have both been dropped, a message that will have been noted not just by those two players but by everyone else in that squad.

No English player is complacent. They can't afford to be. Yet then, when they see how he stood by Dylan Hartley in the aftermath of his sending-off, and subsequent suspension, for striking Seán O'Brien, they'll recognise someone who is capable of being loyal, too.

In Hartley, he sees something of himself, a man who is not daunted by the challenge of leading England, who can cope with pressure and expectation and is utterly determined to succeed.

And all of a sudden, the depressed environment that was evident in the camp as England prepared for their final pool game of the World Cup against Uruguay has been replaced by the feel-good factor. England players walk with a swagger now and were outstanding against Scotland. Over the course of this tournament, they have been a better, more resilient side than anyone else.

All their players - particularly Courtney Lawes, Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury - have been outstanding in the last year and they and the rest of the panel know that if they want to continue playing for England, they have got to bring form, desire and attitude to every training session, never mind every match. Driven by a fear both of failure and of being dropped, most of these England players stand a foot taller than Jones but most will be scared of this tiny Australian whose tongue is the hardest part of his body.

That is the culture he has created. "This is the standard I expect boys," he'll have said to them. "You will be pushed unbelievably hard in training. You will reach a higher fitness level than you have known before. You will have the opportunity to be part of a winning team. We can beat the rest of the world. Just don't drop your standards or else I will drop you."

For me, he's one of the best coaches in world rugby - belonging to an elite grouping along with Steve Hansen, Joe Schmidt, Cheika, Gregor Townsend and Rassie Erasmus.

And yet his biggest test is coming today. While it is a remarkable feat to win 18 Tests in a row - none of those victories were against New Zealand. Nor did they win in Dublin, in a hostile Aviva Stadium, against a team that is hurting from last week's loss and against players who will be playing to ensure they will be Lions tourists this summer.

"Go and play better," Jones told his team this week. They'll need to because not only are they playing a wounded team but also a well-coached one. Like Jones, Schmidt is a driven man, who coaches with a relentless intensity, who scrutinises every single mistake and whose intention is to make his team as good as they possibly can be.

He will be feeling quite frustrated over what happened in Scotland, deflated by the opportunity missed in Cardiff and won't have enjoyed the past week.

As a man who puts so much pressure on his team to win, he will know that if the mistakes of last week are repeated today then Ireland will lose. That fear will have stayed with him this week while he'll possibly be conscious of the statistics that surround his team since the World Cup. Eight wins, one draw and seven defeats since the quarter-final loss to Argentina compare unfavourably to the first 27 games of the New Zealander's reign, when Ireland recorded 20 wins from 27 internationals.

A key difference between the World Cup and now is the absence of Paul O'Connell from the team, which when combined with the retirements of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, three world-class players, and three outstanding leaders, have been taken away.

No coach in the world - even the mercurial Eddie Jones - would find it easy to replace these guys. It takes time. And what I have noticed about Ireland's seven defeats since the World Cup is, firstly, that they have all been narrow ones, and, secondly, that every game has been determined by fine margins, such as the 16th-minute lineout which Alun Wyn Jones stole from a Rory Best throw near the Welsh line last Friday. Having said all that, I still think Ireland could benefit from having more pace in the side, but Schmidt will be aware he isn't the possessor of a magic wand. We don't have the same deep pool of players as countries like England.

The players we do have, though, need to perform. O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Henshaw, Jared Payne, Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton all have to step up to the plate today. They're capable of doing so. Anger is a great motivation. So is the desire to become a British and Irish Lion.

And so, always, is the desire to beat England.

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