Mako Vunipola These constituents are interesting!!
Oct 30, 2019
Tom HamiltonSenior Writer
- • Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018
TOKYO — After two Rugby World Cup cycles of New Zealand dominance, rugby is ready for a fresh name to adorn the Webb Ellis Cup.
Saturday’s World Cup final in Yokohama will throw up a clash of hemispheres, styles and backstories as England face South Africa in the ninth final of rugby’s biggest competition.
Something has to give. Either South Africa break tradition and become the first side to lose a match yet win a World Cup, which would be their third global triumph after 1995 and 2007, or England take the trophy back to the northern hemisphere for the first time since their 2003 triumph.
It has been a glorious five weeks of rugby. Those wondrous tries from the Japan side in the pool phase, particularly against Ireland and Scotland, will linger long in the memory, so too the respect they and their supporters showed their opposition. Remember back to the start when Uruguay knocked over Fiji, following a titanic clash between the All Blacks and South Africa — that was all in the first few days of the competition. It seems a year ago. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of memories from a tournament for the ages.
But all of those memories are filed in the chapters leading up to the final. The paths of both England and the Springboks to this stage have been dotted with ‘sliding doors’ moments, but again this competition has offered us the unpredictable as the four-year form guide was thrown out the window.
This tournament has been played out by two teams peaking at the same time, albeit from vastly different foundations. Will the Springboks’ tactics of bludgeoning the opponent into submission work? Or will England’s all-court style of rugby win out, anchored on physicality and ruthless attacking? This is the biggest week of these players’ lives, and pulling the strings are two coaches who will leave no stone unturned in preparation.
Mako Vunipola Click the links below to skip to a section:
• The intertwined histories of Jones and Erasmus
•Eddie Jones:The mellowed competitor
•Rassie Erasmus:Grabbing the poisoned chalice
•The quiet captains:Siya Kolisi & Owen Farrell
•The unseen influencers:Inside the backroom staffs
•The hype:A World Cup final pressure cooker
•The tactics:Something has to give
•The key players:Faf de Klerk & Maro Itoje
•Tom Hamilton’s World Cup final prediction
Mako Vunipola The intertwined histories of Eddie Jones and Rassie Erasmus
Both England coach Eddie Jones and Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus are master tacticians, have a relentless work ethic and are born competitors. But had fate handed them a different hand, then Jones would be sat watching this World Cup from Cape Town while Erasmus would be in the south west of Ireland.
Their careers are inextricably linked through serendipity with World Cups interfering with best laid plans.
The two crossed like ships in the night back in July 2007. Jones had guided Australia to the World Cup final in 2003 — where they were suffered the knockout blow of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the last minute of extra-time in the final — and was dismissed by the Wallabies in 2005. But two years on, when he was preparing to take up a three-year deal with English Premiership club Saracens, the number of then South Africa coach Jake White popped up on his phone.
Erasmus had been all set to be the Springboks’ technical advisor for their 2007 Rugby World Cup campaign when he was headhunted by Cape Town-based Western Province. He took up the role, and White turned to Jones to fill the gap on a consultancy basis. Jones proved the catalyst the Boks needed and they went on to lift the trophy for the second time. Little did Jones and Erasmus know then that 12 years later they’d be facing each other in a World Cup final.
By his own admission, Jones would not be coach of England had it not been for Japan’s remarkable win over South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. The four-year contract he signed with the Stormers ahead of that tournament was then ripped up after the RFU flew to Cape Town, chequebook in hand, seeking Jones to sort out the national team after a disastrous 2015 campaign see them become the first — and still the only — host nation to exit a Rugby World Cup at the pool phase.
In the near four years since, Jones has completely revolutionised England’s rugby fortunes and this will be his third World Cup final, but he only has memories of his previous two. When his belongings were in transit from Japan to Cape Town to London, a box was lost. In that were his two World Cup medals from 2003 and 2007.
On the flip side, had Japan not shocked South African rugby out of its slumber then there’s every chance Erasmus might still be at Munster on the three-year deal he signed in 2016. Instead, after the Boks’ awful 2016 where they suffered a record-breaking eight defeats, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) came knocking on Erasmus’ door and he returned in Dec. 2017 for his fourth spell in the national team setup — this time as director of rugby after posts as technical advisor (2007), technical specialist (2011) and general manager for their high-performance teams (2012-2016).
Mako Vunipola Eddie Jones: The mellowed competitor
In October 2013, while in charge of Japan, Eddie Jones suffered a stroke. He suffered temporary paralysis down his left side and was hospitalised for six weeks. Now, looking back, he feels that was the moment where he learnt to be calmer and understand some aspects of rugby were out of his control.
Mind you, having spent the last four years covering Jones’ England tenure, if this is a calmer man, then a feistier, more cutting version is a frightening prospect. Talk to those in the England camp and they say ‘ask when he sleeps’ as you’ll get messages from him at 4am, while he answers emails at any time up to and beyond midnight. He simply adores rugby and dedicates his life to it.
Do not mistake this calmer Jones for a less competitive coach. Matt Cockbain, the former Wallabies forward, played under Jones and was part of the squad for the 2003 final and tells how “you didn’t want to get on Eddie’s wrong side” back in his “fierier” days.
“He used to run the young blokes pretty hard,” Cockbain told me earlier this week. “We had young lads like Phil Waugh and George Smith, the openside flankers, and he’d take them for extra sessions after training had finished and you’d see them going at each other for another 30 minutes after that. It would be basic stuff like, ‘George, here’s the ball, Waughy – get it off him’. He was very good at toughening guys up.”
Jones still works his young players hard and still has a relentless desire to win, hates losing and has his own views on how the sport should be played. After Italy concocted a plan to cause England difficulty in the 2017 Six Nations where they did not contest rucks, Jones said to reporters afterwards: “Are you guys going to ask for your money back? Because that was not rugby.”
When Jones took over England, they were at their lowest ebb. He spoke in his opening press conference in Dec. 2015 of how he was going to turn this team into world beaters — having just covered the 2015 World Cup where England had failed to get through their pool, this idealistic thought seemed a world away. He started by leaving behind folk he felt he couldn’t carry through to 2019 and wanted a group of players who would buy into his ethos while also searching out every last ounce of their own personal improvement.
The impact was immediate as England won the 2016 Grand Slam with a 100% record in the Six Nations, and put together a record-breaking 18 wins on the trot, a run which included a 3-0 series whitewash of the Wallabies on Australian soil. Jones’ England would go on to win the 2017 Six Nations but in 2018 had their predictable slump, where they finished fifth in the championship and lost to South Africa 2-1 in the June series. At the time, Jones refused to shy away from criticism but reiterated his earlier warnings of there being an inevitable period in the four-year cycle where the team’s fortunes would tail off.
Early in Eddie Jones’ reign, he explained his plan to make England a 2019 World Cup winning team.
The slump signalled the start of the second phase of his England project as he pressed the reset button and brought in some new faces while phasing out some more experienced personnel like Hartley, Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, Mike Brown and the now retired James Haskell. In their place came Sam Underhill, Tom Curry and Kyle Sinckler while those who remained, like Billy Vunipola and Jonny May, continued their season-on-season evolution into world-class players.
“He’s a master of the mental side of things,” Cockbain said. “If you’re not prepared in the head for what’s to come then you’re never going to win. That comes down to belief and he instils belief and confidence in players and that shows in performance and execution.”
Jones always seems to see things differently to the rest of us: while we were getting excited about Saracens fullback Alex Goode and Gloucester fly-half Danny Cipriani’s form, he preferred other options and laughed in the face of general consensus. Moments of strife are looked at as character building. He earmarked the 76 minutes they played last November against Argentina with 14 men after Elliot Daly’s red card as a key exercise, rather than an ordeal. The most valuable week was the one leading up to their bizarre draw with Scotland in the Six Nations in March this year — England led that match 31-0 at halftime, conceded 38 points in a row and needed a last-gasp try for a crazy draw.
But it is part of an evolution which has peaked with their form here in Japan where they have found their own style of ‘English rugby’, anchored on a solid set piece, and the ability to play with width, strength and pace.
The players speak of how Jones is omnipotent and omniscient when they’re in camp, and isn’t afraid of throwing the odd curve ball at them to keep them on their toes. They’d talk of conversations in the corridors where Jones would say something like “you looked slow today mate” and that was the kick up the behind they needed. It was eno
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