Three years ago, in November 2016, Eddie Jones surprised me for the first of many times. We had met to discuss how we would work together on a book which was still a shadowy idea. In those strange early days of our collaboration I was still trying to figure out Jones. I had heard stories about his abrasive coaching style which had apparently left a trail of players weeping and hiding under tables from Canberra to Tokyo. I had also heard his whiplash quips and spiky insights because, as England coach, Jones's press conference highlights were never boring.
Jones arrived in England rugby with a bang on 1 December 2015. England were in chaos after being knocked out in the group stages of a World Cup they had just hosted. Jones, who had masterminded the game of the tournament by inspiring Japan to victory over South Africa, replaced Stuart Lancaster as head coach. He achieved his first goals in startling style. England won the 2016 Grand Slam and all three Tests against the Wallabies in his native Australia – and every match of the 13 they played under Jones in his first year in charge.
Amid the praise, Jones overturned the first of my many preconceptions. After he had explained how he prepared his teams, using the example of Japan's shock defeat of the Springboks, Jones said something totally unexpected.
"Mate, until that whistle blows, you don't know what's going to happen."
Jones had told me how he had changed the culture of Japanese rugby with meticulous detail, and run a training camp to 'Beat the Boks' which was as precise as it was ferocious. Yet, suddenly, he revealed that his intricate planning was ultimately shrouded in uncertainty. I was surprised, but intrigued.
The more we spoke the more I understood what Jones meant. For all its brutality, rugby can be a delicate game of agonisingly fine margins. A player's confidence can be fleeting, and if it slips once the whistle blows there is little a coach can do. After the game starts Jones' ability to influence the outcome is minimal. He relies on his players to make good decisions, to think and adapt. As a coach all he can really do in the midst of a game is to be smart in his use of substitutions.
"That's why preparation is everything," he said. "If you get it right the chances of your team being successful are high. But, in a team of human beings, nothing is guaranteed."
Jones spoke vividly of how, shortly before Japan defeated the mighty Springboks, he had no idea what would happen. After months of hammering home the message to his assistant coaches and players that they would beat South Africa, he was besieged with uncertainty. He was very quiet as the team bus rumbled slowly to the ground. His vulnerability and doubts were fascinating. It made Jones very human and much more interesting than the cartoonish persona of a hardboiled tyrant that some people foisted onto him.
He then leaned forward and explained the terrible beauty and consuming pressure of elite sport: "This is why we do it, mate. This is why we don't put on a suit every morning, pick up a briefcase and catch the same eight o'clock train into a routine office job. This is the feeling you get nowhere else in life. It's this intensity, this fear, this hope, this thrill all knotted up in your gut. There is a need for courage in the face of adversity. This is what we do."
Jones was a teacher before he became a coach. The two vocations, for him, mirror each other. He loved teaching young players to steel themselves and to keep their heads clear and their hearts steady amid the heat of battle. Jones had been a player, while he was teaching, and he said he learnt so many great lessons on and off the rugby field while playing for Randwick in Sydney in the 1980s.
Thirty years later England were on a roll which would eventually end in a world-record equalling run of 18 consecutive Test victories Jones waved a cautionary finger and surprised me again. He warned that there would be dips and setbacks.
"Wait until the third season, mate," he said. "We might hit a bit of a low then."
Jones had reviewed the records of Southern Hemisphere coaches who had worked in Six Nations rugby. They all suffered a third year dip. After a honeymoon first season, in which they radically improved the fitness of their Northern Hemisphere team, they continued to drive up skill levels in year two. By the time the third season unfolded the Southern Hemisphere lift paled as familiarity set in and standards stagnated. This was a four-year project, Jones stressed, and the way he dealt with a third year slide would shape England's World Cup chances in 2019.
I raised a brow – but, in 2018, England hit the buffers under Jones They lost five matches in a row. His role as a messiah was replaced with depictions of Jones as a clown or an Aussie bastard. I saw him relatively often during this period and he was always calm.
We revisited his 2016 prediction of the third season blues but he had no interest in making any 'I told you so' speeches. He was embroiled in the intricacies of coaching. His best players were fatigued after the Lions tour of New Zealand in the summer of 2017. But he had chosen to drive them harder than ever in training that autumn and again before the 2018 Six Nations. Jones wanted to put them under greater stress than ever before. He knew it might cost England in the short term – but they would be stronger and harder when it mattered most in 2019.
I saw him soon after England had finished second last in the 2018 Six Nations. Ireland had hammered his side at Twickenham in the Grand Slam and the rugby world was certain. England, under Jones, were shot; Ireland were the new joint favourites alongside New Zealand for the World Cup.
"We'll be all right, mate," Jones said. "The plan is on track."
I was beginning to understand how Jones worked and planned ahead. By then we were deep into the research of the book. It took time but, slowly and steadily, we began to move deeper and deeper into Jones' life and work. We knew that we had a book which would span almost 70 years – from his mother's experiences in World War II to the final games of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
As happens so often with my writing, most of the chapters of a long book were written in a six-month burst from early May to early November 2019. The fact that we had carried out over 30 interviews, many stretching to two hours, meant that the building blocks of my research were in place. The book was also enhanced by the detailed interviews I'd done with some of men who knew him so well and could shed fresh insights and evocative memories of key periods in the story – from Bob Dwyer, Glen Ella and George Gregan to Fourie du Preez, Steve Borthwick and Neil Craig.
Bob Dwyer coaching Randwick
We are very different people, and we're working in opposite fields to each other, but Jones and I share similar interests in elite sport and diverse cultures, in books and people. Some of my favourite moments were hearing him talk about books like Snow Falling on Cedars and You Gotta Have Wa and the lessons he absorbed from them. It was also fascinating for me to hear the thinking of one of the world's great coaches over a sustained period and to follow him and his coaching plans with such close attention as we headed towards the climax of a World Cup final.
We met one last time, for the purposes of this book, just two days after England played South Africa in that final. We were exhausted; but we agreed that it had been one hell of a ride.