The Eddie Jones Coaching Podcast: Improving players
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 02/06/20 7:25am
In the fifth episode of The Eddie Jones Coaching Podcast, England's head coach talks through improving players and the importance of core skills.
Alongside former Harlequins and Italy head coach Conor O'Shea, Jones also chats technique under pressure, advice for young coaches and fills us in on his very first coaching post.
The burning question for coaches in the game at all levels these days is the balance between skills and intensity. How does Jones manage this?
"The great thing is there's no wrong or right in coaching. You've just got to find the right way for your team," he says.
"But I think one of the things that probably has not been coached well over the last period of time is the core skills of the game.
"There's been too much of a concentration on getting patterns right. Everyone's got a defence system, everyone's got an attack system, and you see it go down even into schoolboy sides.
"Particularly in the earlier ages, you've got to be coaching their core skills really well. Because if they've got good core skills - catch, pass, support skills, good defence tracking, good defence tackling, breakdown skills - you can play the game in any way.
"We do a lot of that in terms of before and after our strength sessions and our field sessions are generally more about cohesion because we have a shorter period of time.
"But if you've got a team for longer, I'd be starting and finishing every session with some core skill work."
Jones wasn't always in a position whereby he was coaching some of the premier rugby players in the world.
Indeed, he took us down memory lane and his maiden coaching post back in Japan.
"I remember the first coaching job I had was at Tokai University in Western Tokyo.
"I went there and there was 150 kids, we trained on rolled dirt, they had come third last in their competition for nine years in a row, and I managed to coach them to second last - so it was a great coaching achievement!
"But I really worked hard on their basic skills. Every session would start with some basic skill work.
"The thing you've got to remember with basic skill is you've got to have variation.
"Once a player has done a two vs one successfully, you've got to add variation in it: either time, space, more defenders, and the key is to make the player keep growing."
Another key dilemma for coaches in all sports, at all ages and levels, is the balance of developing the skills a player doesn't have against improving the skills and strengths a player already possesses.
What does Jones think is the key?
"Again, I've probably had a real change in philosophy over the years," he says.
"When you're a young coach, you want the player to be perfect. And you work out as you coach that there's no perfect player. Every player has their flaws, and the big thing is to coach players to their strengths.
"I'd encourage every coach out there to coach the player to their strengths.
"I was talking to someone the other day about Steve Larkham. You know, Steve Larkham didn't run straight and we came from a club at Randwick where everything was about running straight.
"The assistant coach was Glen Ella, who wanted him to run straight. But Steve would take the ball at 45 degrees and would be able to pass without changing his pace. So you didn't want to take that away from him.
"Because if you got him to run straight, you actually take away part of his skill. So it's just about then adjusting the role of the other players.
"So look at each player, see what they're really good at, see how you can make it good. Because there's actually no perfect technique."
Indeed, so much of coaching depends upon the needs of the players. Taking each one and their differences, and looking after them.
Jones recalls a time when he received a piece of coaching advice that transformed him as a player - not in rugby though, but in cricket.
"I remember, as a cricketer myself, the best coaching I ever had was from a guy called Phil Sloather, who played for Somerset in the days when Viv Richards played.
"He came and played for our club Randwick and I was a very orthodox, square player, trying to bat with perfect technique and I was knocking around at third grade cricket.
"He watched me bat once and said: 'Open up your stance, because you're coming around your pads all the time.'
"And within six weeks I was playing first grade cricket, from that one change.
"It was just the beauty of his eye and being able to see what I needed to change to be a better player. And that's the key to good coaching.
"Whenever you're looking at the skill of a player, what can you help him do to get that little bit better in the technique that he already has? That's great coaching."
Having coached in the sport for nearly three decades, who are some of the examples Jones has come across of great players whose skillset has become even better, and of players who improved greatly to become very skilled.
"The first player in terms of skill level was Larkham. He used to consistently turn the ball over when he was offloading to his left-hand side, because he'd drop his hand.
"And I remember just showing him offloading off his right hand and then off his left hand and seeing the consequence of it. And immediately he worked it out by himself.
"A lot of the time with the really good players, you've just got to create an awareness of what they're doing rather than having to coach them. And within a couple of games, he'd solved that problem.
"I've got players now who have really improved their skills, and to me the standout is Jonny May.
"He was a standalone speedster when I first saw him. And now he's a player who can play off his wing, he's a great communicator in the back-field, his high ball work is probably second to none in the world.
"And that comes from a complete dedication to be the best. You'll see Jonny at the end of a session, and he'll go round the field and practice his little grubber kick off his left foot by himself. Doesn't want a coach to help him, he just goes and does it.
"And that's the sort of player he is, always wanting to grow."
And what about from Jones' playing days and early coaching days in Australian rugby? Who were the standout players then and how were they managed?
"[David] Campese. He was the standout. He used to come to training 45 minutes before anyone else and practice his torpedo punt.
"No one had to tell him, he'd go and get a ball and just go and practice.
"He was a great attacking player, but he also had an unbelievable punt kick, and that just came, he didn't need a kicking coach, he worked it out himself.
"The other guy who comes to mind is Joe Roff, who was the complete opposite.
"He'd come to training five minutes before it was about to start, always tired, and we had a problem at the Brumbies with goal-kicking. We couldn't kick goal.
"He wasn't the most dedicated guy, and goal-kicking is something you need a lot of dedication for, so if he got 80 per cent in the season, he'd get a free holiday for him and his girlfriend at the end of the year, to Fiji I think it was.
"He practiced and he practiced, got 80 per cent, we won the Super 12 title that year and I don't think he goal-kicked after that season. He had his holiday in Fiji and loved it.
"Again, from a coaching point of view, if you've got a player like that, find a way to get him dedicated."
Lastly, in terms of the overall picture and balancing skills and skill-work within rugby training, what does Jones view as the ideal?
"Looking at the bigger picture, for England we want to be the greatest team in the world, and to do that we have to be absolutely brilliant at our basics.
"You take that down to the community level of the game, where kids are learning, and what you want them to be is absolutely brilliant at basics.
"The vast percentage of your session should always be about basic skills. Now, you can make that into games where you're still reinforcing.
"For instance, you can play touch football but with an early catch. If they don't catch the ball early, it becomes a turnover.
"You can be coaching core skills within fun, movement-type games, but always start with some basic skills, finish with some basic skills, and then put them into games so they have fun doing it.
"Keep mixing it up."
Listen to The Eddie Jones Coaching Podcast here