Rugby | Coach's Eye

Rugby underwent big changes on global scale in 1990s

by Eddie Jones

The Rugby World Cup has become a massive sporting event.

It’s the third-biggest sporting event in the world now, and at the time of year that it’s played, it’s the biggest.

Teams have become hugely professional. It’s probably taken a lot away from test rugby in some ways, because everyone is looking to be at their peak for the World Cup. You can be the best team in the world between World Cups, but the only team that’s remembered is the one that wins the World Cup.

The World Cup has meant more involvement for Tier 2 countries. I think that’s great for world rugby because it was such a closed shop before. Now, the non-traditional rugby countries have shown that they can compete on an equal footing, which is great for the game.

I don’t think anyone imagined the World Cup would become this big when the first one was held in New Zealand and Australia in 1987. Australia played France in one of the semifinals, and my club, Randwick, played Eastern Suburbs beforehand as a curtain-raiser. It was a pretty low-key event. There were people walking around in shorts, eating pies and drinking beer. It was nothing more than a glorified club game.

I think the World Cup only really got to be a bigger event when it was played in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France in 1991. In ’87, it was a bit of a carnival. In ’91, it became much more serious, with big stadiums, bigger crowds and more prestige.

In 1995, in South Africa, New Zealand’s Jonah Lomu stood out. He brought in the age of power athletes, and that was the first sign of rugby becoming a power game. Lomu brought a new dimension to the game of rugby.

In 1999, I did a bit of analysis work for Rod MacQueen, who was Australia’s head coach at the time. That was the first professional World Cup, and Australia was by far the most professional team. The Wallabies were miles ahead and won the competition fairly easily.

In 2003, I was head coach of Australia, the host nation and defending champion. There was a fair bit of expectation around. Coaching the defending champion is probably one of the hardest jobs, because the team that has already won it is generally aging. It was a matter of trying to regenerate the team and still get the most out of the senior players.

It was a pretty electric atmosphere, with sell-out crowds. We had three rugby league guys who were big stars, so it attracted a lot of interest. It was at the forefront of Australian sport and it was a really big event.

In 2007, I was a technical adviser for South Africa, and we won the tournament. I helped Jake White, who was an outstanding head coach. I didn’t feel anything but excitement about the prospect of working with good players. You’d love to be coaching your own country but if that’s not possible, why wouldn’t you go and coach somewhere else?

I had been widely criticized in Australia for taking the job, which I felt was grossly unfair. Now we see coaches working everywhere in the world. Nationality has ceased to be a factor. The Springboks were a remarkable team, and we won that competition at almost a canter.

In 2011, I was coaching the Top League’s Suntory Sungoliath and I went to watch Japan play New Zealand at the World Cup. Japan lost by almost 80 points. The Japanese played their B team and it was basically a glorified training match. I remember thinking “surely Japan can do better than this.” It was an embarrassment. They didn’t even have the courage to play their best team.

I felt very positive going into the 2015 World Cup as head coach of Japan. We had great preparation, we had a good squad, and we were feeling great.

We did something historic when we beat South Africa, and we played a good brand of rugby. Everyone loves it when an underdog wins, so it didn’t surprise me that we became a favorite with the crowds.

You should never underestimate how much you can get out of people. No one thought Japan could win three of four games. No one thought Japan could beat South Africa. If you’re prepared to have courage and you’ve got the time and the effort, you can improve the team substantially. You can do something that no one ever thought you could do.

Now Japan is preparing to host the 2019 World Cup. No one would ever have thought that was possible 30 years ago. They would have laughed at you. Now, there are 50,000 people from the U.K. and another 50,000 from Australia and New Zealand who have already booked to go. You’ve got all these tourists congregating in Japan.

I think it’s going to be a success, but the performance of the home team will dictate how much World Cup fever there is in Japan. Obviously, if Japan does well, that’s going to create a wave of support for the tournament.

In Japan, if something becomes popular, then everyone wants to be involved. If there’s an ice cream shop that becomes popular, people line up for hours to get some. It’s the same with rugby. If rugby becomes popular through Japan beating Russia in the opening match and then running Ireland close, it’s going to be the biggest thing in Japan. It will add even more to the tournament.

Eddie Jones is the head coach of England’s national rugby team. He coached Japan from 2012 to 2015.