Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 23, before England defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup semifinal.
TOKYO -- It was four days out from the Rugby World Cup semifinal and in a 20-minute news conference, England coach Eddie Jones displayed every trait of how he has turned around their prospects. From the depths of despair in 2015 and a plan in tatters to now, regarded as one of the world's top four sides and in with a great chance of winning the sport's biggest prize.
Sat in a small room in a Disney-themed hotel in Chiba, Tokyo, on Tuesday, Jones deflected pressure off his players, gave them a confidence boost, threw a couple of Jones-isms in there and gave you the feeling he was more confident than ever England were going to win their second World Cup. It was Jones' four years in a nutshell.
He's endured tough times as England coach, but they sit alongside a record-breaking winning run, a Grand Slam and a Six Nations title. Now, having referenced in his first ever team meeting how he planned for this team to win the World Cup, he has got them exactly where he wanted. Over the last four years he has changed England's mentality, gone on a personal voyage of coaching discovery, had staff come and go, used all manner of cricket analogies but importantly, got the unwavering trust of his players.
It was in January 2016 when Jones first sat down in front of his England players. He challenged them whether they were just the eighth-best team in the world, their ranking at the time. He asked them what their ideal goal was and that was to get to number one in the world. So for the next World Cup cycle, that was the credo they lived and breathed. Even after they won the Grand Slam in the first year, Jones never over celebrated. It was as much a psychological triumph as an actual one: for that group of players who had endured the disastrous 2015 competition, it allowed them to park those memories but reinforced to the group their vast potential and if they needed it, reminded them they were some of the best players in the world.
Even back then he was referencing Nov. 2, 2019 -- the date of the World Cup final. It was a tactic which meant the players could block out the noise and stay focused on the eventual goal.
One player in that original meeting said Jones created a place "where everyone understood where they stood and created an environment where we were aware of how much we could improve and how we could get there". It was a team setting where Jones built an original backroom staff of "task-focused people, people-focused people, alpha males and compassionate people". But he also made his mark early with individuals: he handed Ben Youngs a packet of sweets and told him to lose weight while to another he gave a six-pack of beer and told him to behave himself.
He changed training, making the sessions short, sharp, focused exercises and looked to the senior players at the time to drive standards -- the likes of Billy Vunipola, Chris Robshaw, original captain Dylan Hartley, James Haskell and Owen Farrell.
"You could see the ability was there, we just needed to change a few things, change the way we train, the way we play, the way we think," Jones said Tuesday, looking back on that first meeting.
Two weeks after Jones first met the players, the senior player group sat around a table in the restaurant at Pennyhill Park, their training base, and reflected on the first fortnight: they all confirmed they had never been in an environment like it and wanted to keep that intensity and focused mentality.
The team would go on to win the 2016 Grand Slam and whitewash Australia in a three-Test tour the following June, bringing what he called a 'Bodyline' style of rugby, referring to the 1932/33 Ashes series where England bowled at the body of the Australian batsmen. It was during this series that he also showed his ruthlessness with selection -- twice substituting players off after 30 minutes to change the flow of the match.
They finished 2016 unbeaten, and won the 2017 Six Nations title but lost in the final match to Ireland, their first defeat under Jones. The following year was Jones' most taxing spell in charge of England as they finished fifth in the Six Nations and lost to South Africa 2-1 in the June tour. He predicted all along England would have to endure a slump, but it triggered the second phase of his squad selection evolution and a number of those players fell by the wayside. He saw things differently to others; he ignored public opinion on a number of occasions and went with unconventional solutions to problem positions, like Elliot Daly at fullback, but that selection fitted in with his original plan for the tactical evolution of England.
When he first got the job, he said he wanted his England side to play 'English rugby' --physical, set piece-orientated, with free-flowing backs. He now has that with his multi-national backroom staff fine-tuning the game plan for here in Japan.
Jones is always direct with his players. If they were going to be excluded from the squad, he'd visit the senior players for face-to-face meetings, while phoning others. He'd deliver good news with a text message.
But there were events he couldn't have planned for. Paul Gustard, the England defence coach, was given the Harlequins head coaching job and left after the 2018 June series. Gustard was a key cog in Jones' backroom staff alongside Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley. He was eventually replaced by former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, while Jones also added attack coach Scott Wisemantel to his backroom staff. After a spell of chopping and changing, with consultants brought in, Jones only settled on his coaching staff at the start of this year. But this tendency to keep people on their toes and make them feel uncomfortable was a theme throughout his tenure with England and it included challenging himself to improve.
Jones has used his time in England to pick the brains of some of the country's finest footballing minds. He met Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United manager, who emphasised the importance of patience. Ferguson told the players "when the pressure's on don't shoot, you'll find a way to get into a better scoring position", according to Maro Itoje. But the greatest influence on him outside of rugby has arguably been Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City manager.
Marti Perarnau's book 'Pep Confidential', on Guardiola's first season during his time at Bayern Munich, had a profound effect on Jones who was fascinated by how Guardiola kept his squad fresh over a 60-game season where he seldom had all his best players fit at one time. It had some impact on his team selection for this World Cup but when he spent an evening with Guardiola in Germany, the main lesson he took away from it was the need to be ever inventive.
"It changed the way I coach," Jones said of meeting Guardiola. "I came out of that session embarrassed about how I had been coaching.
"When I was a young coach I used to coach pretty hard and I probably got criticised a bit for it. But I went and watched Pep's session. He was coaching some of the best players in the world and it was minus five. It was freezing.
"They had 21 players and they were in three teams of seven, working on getting into space. Pep was out there running the session and speaking in four or five different languages telling guys like [Arjen] Robben what to do.
"It was just really enlightening how hard they worked in that 20 minutes and how he was embedding his philosophy on that team and how the players had bought into it. I remember them coming off and they had sweat pouring off them. I have watched many football teams train and they were down here and he was up there. It definitely changed the way that I coach. I work the players a lot harder now."
Alongside this, he also utilised the football practise of tactical periodisation for his rugby needs. It saw him change the way they trained so they focused on skill, speed, stamina, strength and psychology but all five aspects were geared towards specific areas of the game: the transition from attack to defence, the movement from defence to attack, attacking organisation and defensive structures. This also led to him increasingly seeing rugby as a 23-man game, rather than the traditional view of a starting XV and the replacements, something he mentioned with increasing regularity during the 2017 Six Nations where his team won two of their five matches in the final throes of the game.
"If I had my way I would just pick a squad of 23," Jones said last week. "But the laws of the game make you pick a starting 15. For four years we have been talking about having a squad of 23, because our finishing guys are just as important as our starting guys. Some are more important. Look at baseball. Some of the closers are among the most high-paid pitchers in the world because they have such an important job."
His unquenchable thirst for learning also led him to visit rugby league side Warrington Wolves, the Tour de France, England cricket as well as a smattering of football clubs: West Brom, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Southampton, Newcastle United and the England national side. He also travelled to Amsterdam to learn about Ajax's academy, while he welcomed Roy Keane, John Terry, Gareth Southgate, Antonio Conte, Ferguson, Alan Pardew and the now late Ray Wilkins into England's camp. The team also spent time with British Olympian Ben Ainslie, GB hockey coach Danny Kerry and Australia rugby league duo Ricky Stuart and Andrew Johns.
He uses every waking hour to its fullest -- players tell of getting 4am texts from him -- and has been influenced by NBA legend Pat Riley's book 'The Winner Within' and 'The Courage to Be Disliked' by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga; at the moment he's reading Malcolm Gladwell's 'Talking to Strangers'. Each member of the backroom staff were given 'Japan: The Paradox of Harmony' to read ahead of this World Cup. It's all been part of his plan to peak for November 2.
Jones has at times found the dynamic between the RFU and clubs frustrating, at one point turning his sabre-like wit on Bath owner Bruce Craig after he came in for criticism over the physical nature of England's training sessions. Prior to taking the job, he said central contracts were a necessity if a team was to be successful. But his forthrightness has also been something he's managed -- throughout his tenure he has refrained from criticising referee decisions post-match, or matters out of his control.
But he does manufacture scenarios to keep players on their toes. He puts training sessions or team meetings in the diary, and then doesn't turn up, expecting the players to take the lead. It's part of the plan he outlined when he took the job, to make himself 'redundant' by the time they arrived in Japan as England would be player-led.
The sight of Farrell leading the post-match huddle after their Australia win in the quarterfinals would have delighted Jones. He also likes it when the players take control. There's an anecdote from Joe Marler on the Joe podcast where he was warned by water-carrying Wisemantel he was about to be substituted during the third Test against South Africa in 2018, and he responded "Wisey, you can tell him [Jones] to get f----d. I'm staying on mate, we're seeing this f---ing job out". He repeated this again a few minutes later and post-match, he got a tap on the shoulder from Jones who told Marler he "f---ing loved" it.
He has stayed loyal to certain players from his first squad, while milking every last ounce of talent and experience out of the more senior players from that first meeting. Robshaw, Hartley, Danny Care, Mike Brown and Haskell were originally mainstays, but are now watching this World Cup at home. And for all his planning, he always wanted a World Cup bolter, who came in the form of Ruaridh McConnochie. It is never predictable, but he'd have it no other way.
But Jones knows his immediate legacy will be defined by their success here in Tokyo.
When Jones was at the World Cup draw in Kyoto back in May 2017, he mapped out how he thought this tournament would go. He predicted England would meet Australia in the quarterfinals, and then the All Blacks in the semifinals. Saturday's match has been two-and-a-half years in the making, and nearly four years in the planning. He has put all the pressure on the All Blacks, but desperately wants to win.
"If you look at what we've done as a team over the last four years, we've had some great wins, we've had some significant losses," Jones said. "We have learnt from those, how to work together.
"There is a togetherness in this team that will carry them through difficult moments in the game. In a semi-final there will be big moments in the game. That will decide the game. I think we are well equipped to handle those moments."
If they manage to get across the line, then they can look back at that meeting in Pennyhill Park in January 2017 as the start of their journey from World Cup heartbreak to potential rugby immortality.